I remember a time when it seemed like I was the only person in the world who knew that stars we could see in the night sky might one day go foom, letting us read at night or, possibly, destroying the habitability of our planet. Of course, I couldn’t have been alone in knowing this, since I found out about it by reading books by other people, but in the dark times of Web 0.1, before writers and scientists were people who listened to music and got in spats with one another, it was easy to feel alone while exploring the heavens.
And now, look, everybody who reads the Washington Post knows about Eta Carinae, thanks to Joel Achenbach:
I dropped by NASA headquarters last Monday to hear about the relatively nearby and extremely massive star that might explode at any moment. Remember the name: Eta Carinae. Sounds like an Italian opera singer, or maybe a snazzy little sports car. It’s a monster of a star — something like 120 times the mass of the sun, and roiling, heaving, spewing out gobs of star stuff in what may be the prelude to a cataclysmic bang, a supernova unlike any seen before.
If it blows, you might be able to read a book by its radiance at night — unless it fires a narrow beam of gamma rays right at us, in which case all bets are off. One astrophysicist on hand said, “It would probably destroy all the ozone in the atmosphere.” Similar to what we tried to do ourselves, before we banned those nasty chlorofluorocarbons. Eta Carinae would be like a giant can of 1950s hairspray. Not a pleasant picture.
“Relatively nearby” is, of course, a vague layman-speak of what the astronomers can say much better. Achenbach adds, parenthetically,
now there’s a squishy term if I ever saw one: the star is 7,500 light years away, which, as I note at the end of the piece, is a long hike. That’s close to a tenth of the way across the entire galaxy. A light-year is about 6 trillion miles. So to express the distance in miles to Eta Carinae you have to resort to “quadrillions,” which we can all agree is a silly word.
Not as silly as — tee hee! — sextillions. And it gets worse:
Did you know that a myriad is officially 104? Or that a lakh is 105 and a crore is 107? (I guess they’re not joking when they say the Lakh Ness Monster is really big.) I’m not making any of this up — it comes straight from p. 16 of Conway and Guy’s Book of Numbers. They even give some examples of Japanese names for big and little powers of ten (many of which are apparently of Indian origin). They call 1056 kougasha, “sands of the Ganges,” while 1080 is fukashigi — “don’t even think about it” — and 1088, muryoutaissu, translates as “large amount of nothing.”