Cheer up: It’s a hard-knock life for stars, too

Life is a struggle. And a repetitive one at that.

A remnant of a supernova called G292+1.8. Source: Nasa

The first thought that goes through my mind as I kick the covers off and haul myself to the shower is that it’s hard to be alive. Why is it so hard to get out of bed? Because rest feels great. Why do I keep doing this? Because I have to pay the bills. As the sleepiness ebbs, I chastise myself that other people have it much harder than I do, and I should be grateful.

Well, we all struggle to live—from the middle-aged upper middle class businessman backing out of his double-storey house in Lynnwood Manor, to the ashen vagrant towing cardboards and cans to sell for another day’s meal; from the first vulnerable hours of an offspring’s life in the wild to the raging core of a star. Life is a constant battle against inertia, a rebellious, feverish and momentary movement against the cold and dark.

The difference between the thing that moves and the space it moves in bestows upon that thing, at minimum figuratively, the condition of life, and keeping up that difference is costly. If you gain the pressure and temperature of your environment, you are dead; equilibrium is the bane of all existence: the difference in pressure inside of your body and outside of it allows you to breathe, and your metabolism raises your temperature above that of your surroundings. Similarly the hydrostatic pressure generated by a star as it fuses lighter atoms into heavier ones, but no heavier than iron, staves off a gravitational collapse of the core.

In those several decades of a human life and several billion years of a star’s, the inside is hot, high-pressure and constantly moving. In that interim, we who have the blessing of sentience can think about what to do with our lives, decide to give it meaning or not and rage against the apathy and looming reminder of our ephemeral state. That offspring in the wild can perhaps eke out an existence, unbeknownst to it as it blindly obeys a bank of genetic instructions that gives rise to what we call instinct, before the vicious sickle of nature passes across the neck and the numbers subside once more. One of the more famous paragraphs in Charles Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life begins:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence…

But inexorably comes the winding down and then the exhale. The battle, even if it is joined, turns to the view in the distance of that dark nothing. My mother, who is a nurse, tells me of the last moments of a patient’s life: After furious animation as the doctor and nurses try to save their charge, the energy is syphoned out of the room—not by any malevolent agent, just the cold and pointed face of inertia. Then, my mother says, the unexpected moment of the last exhale of the patient draws their eyes and halts their hushed conversation. And the person is not gone, as though still moving to a definite destination, he is not any longer.

When a star of sufficient mass has fused all of the elements on the periodic table up to iron, it begins to lose its fight against gravity. Atoms of iron require a prohibitive amount of energy to fuse together into heavier atoms. This is called binding energy. Unable to oblige, the core of the star—suffocated by the iron, which acts as an ‘energy sink’ as David Garfinkle notes in Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter—begins to collapse: the hydrostatic pressure produced by fusion fades, gravity overcomes it and the atoms draw closer to each other.

As the density of the core increases, the pressure and thus the temperature rises until it overcomes the binding energy and finally comes that moment of the last exhale: the star dies in a violent explosion called a supernova, during which atoms heavier than iron are synthesised, and the star’s envelope and core are ejected into the interstellar medium. The star now only lives as light travelling through the universe, perhaps landing upon a telescope and leaving an image like the one at the top of this page.

But all that nature is, is the collective activity of an accumulation of objects that behave this way. Episodically life on Earth nears the brink of extinction and then slowly recovers. Episodically the numbers of a population of wild animals fall and rise as the prey gets better at evading its predator and the predator gets better at catching its prey. Episodically groups of stars are born when the shock wave from a supernova compresses the interstellar material into clumps, the centres of which begin to rise in temperature until ignition and fusion begins.

Olaf Stapledon, a philosopher and science-fiction writer of the early 20th century, says in Star Maker:

I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of that little grain, all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of the stars.

It is just another aeon in the universe. So as I, too, strain against gravity to rise out of bed, it is just another day on Earth. Stumbling to the shower, I should comfort myself that this is the simple point of life: to move against the impending nothing to come, and I should break out a few dance moves while I’m at it.


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