By Scott Sullivan
Betelgeuse may be blowing up as you read this. Or have already gone kablooie. Astronomers fret eagerly that the giant red star is the dimmest it’s been in a century, based on 600-year-old light they are just now seeing.
Look at the constellation Orion, whose right shoulder has faded noticeably since October. That’s not odd in itself, as Betelgeuse is a variable star. That means its brightness wanes and waxes because of its mottled surface, whose massive convective cells shrink and swell. But it’s not that simple.
Villanova University’s Edward Guinan says the red giant has become bloated and unstable, like Orson Welles late in life. Remember the actor/director peddling cheap hooch while intoning its maker “sells no wine before its time”?
Stars don’t explode before their time either, Guinan says. Betelgeuse could be dimmer than it’s been in 100 years because photometric cycles are overlapping. Or we could be seeing its last stage before it blows.
As massive stars near the end of their lives, says U-C Berkeley’s Sarafina Nance, they experience violent and insane mass loss. The ejected dust could shroud and darken their appearance, causing them to dim until they go supernova. If so, Betelgeuse will fill our sky with light and then turn to nothing.
Nance doubts that’s about to happen but is “excited for when it does. It would be incredibly cool!” she says of the conflagration. “By far the most incredible thing to happen in my life.” So much for getting married or having children.
I too love when things blow up. Emerson’s portentousness, for example. Hitch you wagon to a star, then BOOM!
What will happen here when Betelgeuse blows? Almost nothing. Scientists say it will take six million years for the shock wave and any cold, diffuse debris to arrive in our solar system, where the sun’s protective bubble will shield us from splattered star guts. Just look to a clear northern sky, they advise, and enjoy the show.
If we do see Betelgeuse detonate, that will mean it exploded during the Middle Ages and light from it at last has reached us. Like people for whom it is just now dawning that Machiavelli was right when said, “Everybody sees who you appear to be, few know who you really are.”
Joining Welles among fast-dimming stars who blew up, what happened Charlie Sheen? “Citizen Kane”’s creator plugging rosé instead of Rosebud doesn’t hold a candle to Sheen, who successfully got himself fired in 2011 as television’s best-paid actor.
The star of “Two and a Half Men” was ashcanned for publicly calling show creator Chuck Lorre “the most talentless f***ing sack of s*** of f***ing stupid this side of La Brea.”
It might have paid to increase his word power. Had Sheen read Lake Superior State University’s new list of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use or General Uselessness, he might have likened the sitcom’s “curated” and “artisanal” qualities to the latest local Taste of … offerings, such as Los Gringos’ flava-bean enchiladas. But he fell back on tamer profanities instead.
You or I go on a psycho drug binge, we land in jail. Sheen landed on TV talk shows, where he told the world he was a “warlock” with “tiger blood.” “I’m tired of pretending I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars,” he said.
Photographers use blow-ups all the time. If I shoot Orion from Earth, my camera sensor will show Betelgeuse — which is 700 times the size of the sun — as little more than a pinprick. If I blow up, or enlarge, the image past even pea-size, it will pixelate beyond recognition.
We all know nothing is as it seems. Macchiavelli advised politicians, “One who deceives will always find others willing to be deceived” 600 years ago.
Antonioni’s 1966 movie “Blowup” tells of a London fashion photographer who thinks he has captured a murder unwittingly on film.
The movie’s explicit sexual content may seem like Romper Room by today’s standards. But its U.S. release, and subsequent popularity, blew up Hollywood’s Production Code, replaced in 1968 with the MPAA rating system still with us today.
Everything must go. There’s a close-out on humans too. Survivors see fragments, filtered through their perceptions, from tomorrow or long ago.