Pandemic Time

Chapter 1, Draft V1 of The Clockless Clock

In early February, 2020, even as Covid19 was spreading rapidly across the world, a far more dramatic phenomenon in absolute terms was playing out in the skies: the sudden dimming of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is what is known as a variable star — a natural clock in the sky that exhibits a complex, imperfectly predictable pattern of dimming and brightening driven by multiple loosely related stellar phenomena, much like the seasonal flu here on Earth. Was the dimming an anomalous phenomenon, or a regular part of the variation, astronomers wondered? Was Betelgeuse perhaps about to go supernova, as theories of stellar physics predict it eventually must? 

Variable stars with unsteady rhythms are commonplace, but supernovas are rare enough, and consequential enough, that they count as historic events even at a cosmic scale, much as pandemics do on a terrestrial scale. Among other things, they scatter heavier nuclei around, seeding planets and life itself, inspiring the poetic observation that we are all made of stardust.  Only eight supernovas visible to the naked eye appear in the historical record, the most recent one being SN 104, also known as Kepler’s star, observed by Johannes Kepler in 1604, a few years before the invention of the telescope. 

Betelgeuse is among the prominent candidates for number nine. 

The simultaneous dimming of Betelgeuse and the global emergence of Covid19 in February, 2020 were curiously rhyming phenomena: anomalous disruptions of familiar, reassuring rhythms, with latent apocalyptic potential. Had two such events coincided in antiquity, our more astrologically inclined ancestors would have been very worried. Were light capable of traveling instantaneously, events would have coincided in an interesting way. Betelgeuse is somewhere between 550 to 800 light years away, according to the most recent distance estimates. The dimming we observed in February actually occurred somewhere around the time the Black Death was making its way around the world. 

Whether or not the stars foretold our present condition, we will be living, for the foreseeable future, in a distorted temporality shaped by the progress of Covid19 across the globe. Like the distorted time around a supergiant star going supernova and collapsing into a black hole, Pandemic Time is anything but normal.

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