A couple months ago I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. In the course of events a character is thrown into eternal night, which at the time reminded me strongly of Lord Byron’s poem, Darkness. “I should,” I said to myself, “remind everyone of this poem, because so great, right?” I never did. But you guys, then I saw this, and it is very cool:
Scientists have discovered a planet 750 light years away, a “Hot Jupiter”, or a gas giant orbiting very close to its sun.
What makes TrES-2b so remarkable is its refusal to give back light. The scientific word for reflectivity is albedo. The Earth reflects about 37 percent or 0.37 of the light it receives from the sun. That is why we present such a beautiful bright blue face to the universe.
TrES-2b is another story entirely. It bounces back less than 1 percent (0.01) of the light it receives from its star. That means the planet is blacker than coal. Seen from space, TrES-2b would barely be visible.
It is not clear yet why TrES-2b is so dark. It may be that the intense heat from the nearby star has formed strange, light-absorbing compounds in the planet’s atmosphere.
I don’t know why darkness (or light, for that matter) is so compelling, but it is. Here’s Lord Byron’s poem, followed by some fun facts:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings–the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour
They fell and faded–and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;–a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought–and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails–men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died–
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful–was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless–
A lump of death–a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir’d before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them–She was the Universe.
When I first read this poem I was oblivious to its context. Byron wrote it in 1816, “The Year Without a Summer“, a year which experienced significant temperature dips due in part to a huge volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies. Among the consequences of that volcanic winter were food shortages in the Northern Hemisphere; many believed the end was nigh.
The next car in my train of thought turned out to be, predictably, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland. Lord Byron, here is your hellscape: