How Soon Until We’d Notice?

Dearest Rachel –

There’s an old children’s-level joke that asks whether heat or cold is the faster, with the punchline being ‘heat… you can catch cold.’ At the risk of Aunt Florencing the joke (you’ll recall the reference, but I may have to explain this one to everyone else), I remember from even the first time I heard it as a little kid how the answer was right for all the wrong reasons. After all, heat is just a form of light, which means that it travels at the speed of light. Cold, by contrast, is merely the absence of heat; turn off the heat (or the light producing the heat) and things become colder… eventually.

Aunt Florence (v.) To deconstruct a joke by taking it literally, and “proving” it incorrect by offering real-life countervailing examples to the premise.

Female comic: “I could never try out material with my mother; she’d never understand the humor in the jokes. I’d start off by asking her, ‘You know why women are so bad at math? Because they’ve been told all their lives that this,’ and I’d extend my thumb and forefinger, ‘is eight inches.’ And she’d always respond with, ‘Oh, that’s not true, dear. Lots of women are good at math. You’re good at math. Your Aunt Florence is good at math…’ I just gave up on telling her anything.”

I say this in part because, despite the fact that last evening started out quite warm, by the time we all decided we’d had our fill (or the various places we might be interested in had sold out of what appealed to us) and might as well head home, it had gotten dark, and fairly chilly as a consequence, despite being in the middle of June. Daniel and Kerstin were both lauded for their foresight in wearing layers – Daniel with his hoodie and Kerstin with her jacket.

In addition, I woke up this morning from a dream in which Mohinder and I (working in better days – there was a time long ago in which we did get along; he was a party to my hiring, back in the day, after all) were frantically trying to get the company’s taxes filed and paid… despite the fact that the sun had disappeared, and the world was on the verge of freezing to death. Yes, we may be facing planetary extinction, but at the same time, the government still exists (despite the fact it can’t – or won’t – do anything about this crisis) and still insists upon its standard pound of flesh. Indeed, for all the absurdity of my dreams at times, that part of this one is probably frighteningly realistic.

But I woke up wondering just how long it would take us before we figured out what had happened if something like that actually occurred. I mean, if the sun were to simply… disappear one day, without warning. I realize that’s not how it’s going to happen, as that goes against certain laws of astrophysics. I know that the current scientific theory expects it to cool down and expand to the point where it swallows up Mercury, Venus and Earth (and possibly Mars) before collapsing upon itself as a dwarf star.

But just as a thought exercise… if the sun were to simply cease to exist, how long would it take before anyone would notice what had happened?

Of course, half the earth (and more than half the population, especially if it happened now, during the northern summer) would find out in about the eight minutes it takes for light to flow (or, more to the point, cease to flow) from where the sun used to be to the earth. It may be the fastest thing in what we consider to be existence, but light doesn’t travel instantaneously, and over literally astronomical distances such as this, it won’t have an immediate effect. Still, to have it suddenly wink out as if a switch had been flipped would get people’s attention right quick. On the other side, however, it occurs to me that it might not be all that obvious; had it happened while we were finishing up our various… I’m not sure what to call what we were eating last night. They weren’t quite enough to call them ‘meals,’ especially on an individual basis, but they were more than what you would call ‘snacks.’ Anyway, if the sun were to vanish entirely just after sinking below the horizon, would we have been aware of it before the morning that didn’t come? With all the lights of the city on in full force, we didn’t notice the moon, so when it blinked out a minute later, we probably wouldn’t have seen a thing.

Even as the planet began to cool off, we’d likely write it off to the fact that ‘oh, it always gets cooler at night – thank heavens,’ especially after another day of the temperature pushing into the eighties and beyond (Daniel, despite not having been around during them, claims that the eighties ‘were a great decade, but a lousy temperature’ to live through. Since we were in our prime at the tail end, I’m inclined to agree, but I’m biased because of that). It would take until we woke up to a pitch-dark sky (but with our clocks insisting it was nine or ten in the morning) before this new reality might set in. And from there, what next? How long could we survive before everything cooled to an untenable level? Could we last a week, a month, a year, or would it be but a matter of days before we would freeze to death?

I’m sure there are plenty of computer models that have run this very scenario; it’s the kind of thing that scientists and writers think about quite often, I shouldn’t wonder. At the same time, it’s such an improbable – no, more like ‘impossible’ – situation that it needn’t keep anyone awake at night worrying about it (certainly, we as humanity have come up with more than enough things to overtax our brains with fretting over as it is). But its very impossibility is what gets me wondering whether we’d consider it – or any similar such situation – were it to actually happen.

And what else might happen to us that we wouldn’t notice until it was too late?

So… that was what I woke up with this morning, honey. I know your day has been better than that. Wish you could tell me about it; it would probably keep me from getting worked up over something like this.

Published by randy@letters-to-rachel.memorial

I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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