Wednesday, 30 September 2009
My favourite stories: Number three: I learn about the fate of the earth, without fully understanding astronomical timescales
I was given a fat book of science knowledge when I was about five. It explained atoms, and why nails were hard and water wasn't; and how life came out of the oceans; and how homo sapiens evolved from a monkey bush that also grew gorillas and chimps.
One day I came across a sequence of pictures describing the life of a star, in particular, the Sun. It showed how billions of years in the future, the sun would turn into a red giant and expand to swallow up the inner planets (most importantly, Earth), before winking out into a tiny frozen ball.
"But luckily," said the final caption with breezy confidence, "This won't happen for billions of years."
Later that night, my father came up to check on us all. I was still awake, eyes wide in the dark. "What's the matter?"
"This book says that in billions of years, the sun's going to turn into a red giant and the seas are going to boil away into space, and we're all going to burn up."
"So I've heard."
"How long ago did they write this book?"
He took the tome from my hands and looked at the printing data. "1977."
"Is that billions of years ago?"
"No. It's the year you were born."
"Is that nearly billions of years ago?"
"No. It just bloody feels that way. Now go to sleep."