Fire, Fire—Planets on Fire
Last night I watched a PBS program on the Inner Planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. A major theme was how the life cycle of these planets, and indeed our whole solar system, depends on changes in the life of the sun. The fate of the children, so to speak, is tightly bound up with that of the parent.
Toward the end of the program, now focused on 5.5 billion years in the future, I learned that the sun would become what’s known as a red giant. That multi-million-year period would be a kind of long, galactic swan song for our star. Hotter than ever, it would expand by tens of millions of miles and in effect eat Mercury and Venus. It was spooky to watch these sister planets, dark circles on the screen, being pulled one after the other by an apparent ripe tide into the solar disk, explode, and disappear without a trace. Some scientists projected that earth, devoid of its life-giving water and thus of life itself, would escape this final fate but would become a desert planet like our red neighbor, Mars. The red color in the artist’s rendering of the super-sized sun and our seared world, moreover, reminded me of the eerie photographs of the wildfires in New South Wales, Australia, that punctuate our current nightly news.
Yet there was good news too. The outer planets would now be warmed, and life might form on, say, Titan, a Mercury-sized moon of Jupiter. Presently a world of frozen liquid methane, it has been found to contain most if not all the elements required for life. Needed was only to add heat, so to speak, and stir. The forces in charge of the Universe looked set to do that.
For me it was shocking to realize yet again that, as the Book of Revelation has it, heaven and earth will pass away. Not by water, as the Negro spiritual puts it, but the fire next time. Everything made has a best-by date and will expire. Yet the store shelves will get restocked. The whole sequence is like the Christian story about the Crucifixion being succeeded and overcome by the Resurrection. The story is not simply, as the German proverb states, that everything passes, including you, but rather, as in the Sonny and Cher song, the beat goes on. Of course, the waltz of life may now be a salsa. But in the universe, the Great Life Force sees to it that there will always be some kind of Music of the spheres. So, for us, the lesson is clear: Put on your dancing shoes and just keep dancing.
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