Tranquil Star

Primo Levi, posthumously in this weeks New Yorker:

After the death of the Arab, al-Ludra [“the capricious one”, the name given to the star], although provided with a name, did not attract much interest, because the variable stars are so many, and also because, starting in 1750, it was reduced to a speck, barely visible with the best telescopes of the time. But in 1950 (and the message has only now reached us) the illness that must have been gnawing at it from within reached a crisis, and here, for the second time, our story, too, enters a crisis: now it is no longer the adjectives that fail but the facts themselves. We still don’t know much about the convulsive death-resurrection of stars: we know that, fairly often, something flares up in the atomic mechanism of a star’s nucleus and then the star explodes, on a scale not of millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes.We know that these events are among the most cataclysmic that the sky holds; but we understand only—and approximately—the how, not the why. We’ll be satisfied with the how.

An observer who, to his misfortune, found himself on October 19th of 1950, at ten o’clock our time, on one of the silent planets of al-Ludra would have seen, “before his very eyes,” as they say, his gentle sun swell, not a little but “a lot,” and would not have been present at the spectacle for long. Within a quarter of an hour he would have been forced to seek useless shelter against the intolerable heat—and this we can affirm independently of any hypothesis concerning the size and shape of this observer, provided that he was constructed, like us, of molecules and atoms—and in half an hour his testimony, and that of all his fellow-beings, would end. Therefore, to conclude this account we must base it on other testimony, that of our earthly instruments, for which the event, in its intrinsic horror, happened in a “very” diluted form and, besides, was slowed down by the long journey through the realm of light that brought us the news. After an hour, the seas and ice (if there were any) of the no longer silent planet boiled up; after three, its rocks melted and its mountains crumbled into valleys in the form of lava. After ten hours, the entire planet was reduced to vapor, along with all the delicate and subtle works that the combined labor of chance and necessity, through innumerable trials and errors, had perhaps created there, and along with all the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined that sky, and had wondered what was the value of so many little lights, and had found no answer. That was the answer.