I realize that November, National Novel Writing Month, is almost over. Makes me no never-mind; I am not much of a fiction writer and never have been. I have been blessed to know a few, some of whom even have ventured gracefully into the literary precincts of “science fiction” (or “fantasy” or “speculative fiction” and related terms/categories) and emerged not just unharmed but enhanced, embraced and emboldened. (Yeah, Andy Duncan, I’m talkin’ ’bout you.)
But here’s the thing, and by “thing” I mean “really cool premise, which is actually happening, for a short story or novel”:
The universe is apparently well past its prime in terms of making stars, and what new ones are being made now across the cosmos will never amount to more than a few percent on top of the numbers already come and gone.
This is the rather disquieting conclusion of a new and significant study of the rate at which stars have been produced through cosmic time.
[Astrophysicist David] Sobral and colleagues recently published the results of a series of ‘snapshots’ made of galaxies busily making stars at different epochs, from about 4 billion years ago (around the time of Earth’s formation) all the way back to nearly 11 billion years ago. This is no simple task, some of the world’s largest and most sensitive telescopes had to be employed.
By observing light at very specific frequencies (corresponding to emission from warm hydrogen atoms – see the note below) they are able to gauge the actual rate at which new stars are condensing out of thick nebular material in a few thousand galactic systems. This yields some very robust statistics on the global changes in the numbers of new stars being made as the universe ages.
The main conclusions come in two parts. First, 95% of all the stars we see around us today were formed during the past 11 billion years, and about half of these were formed between roughly 11 and 8 billion years ago in a flurry of activity. But the real shocker is that the rate at which new stars are being produced in galaxies today is barely 3% of the rate back 11 billion years ago, and declining. This indicates that unless our universe finds a second wind (which is unlikely) it will only ever manage to produce about 5% more stars than exist at this very moment.
This is, quite literally, the beginning of the end.
Let’s suppose we set this work on a planet supporting intelligent life, orbiting the last known star in the universe, albeit one not believed to be going away anytime soon. Let us further suppose that interstellar travel, though by no means simple or routine, is common enough (within certain time/space limits) that this planet has become the repository of all knowledge and creativity that has survived the death of all other stars (and their planets) in its accessible portion of the universe, if not the whole universe.
What would the personal and global conversations be about? What would the personal priorities be, and those of the body politic? Would these beings succumb to fin-du-monde anarchy, or would they conclude that when the fall is all that’s left, the fall matters? (Maybe they harbor the hope, however remote, that they will be discovered by a previously unknown form of intelligent life that, even if it chose to make hors d’oeuvres of them, might also be interested in their work?
What lives, what dies, and what matters most in the interstices between them? And how do you render the pondering of these questions, if not the ultimate answers, in language that a reasonably sentient carbon-based life form can understand?
That’s your assignment. I’m feeling generous, so you’ve got until March 31.