Monday, August 29, 2016

Asimov's Nightfall

Nightfall Begins

Magazine editor John W. Campbell asked Isaac Asimov to write a story based on a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in chapter 1 of Nature, Addresses and Lectures:
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!
Campbell thought that men would instead go mad.

Asimov set his story Nightfall on a planet (named Lagash) in a solar system containing six suns. Because of so many suns, Lagash normally does not experience a night--and no stars are seen. The people grow up thinking they are the center of the universe, that, in fact, their solar system IS the universe. But once very 2049 years, the suns align, eclipse, such that there is a brief night. And the population does go mad, destroying civilization, sending it back to the stone-age.

Under an Ever Blazing Sky

Creatures that evolve in such a system would probably have poor night vision. Though caves would still exist, and so dark places could be found. Though how scary those would be to creatures that have no night vision? Cloudy days would bring some dimness, but not darkness, not like night. And with multiple suns in the sky, even cloudy days would be, normally, brighter than a cloudy day on Earth.

What to make of all the suns in the sky--their complicated dance, how some drop down the horizon while others pop up, sometimes with this sun, sometimes with another; some suns move fast across the sky, others slowly. If two are binary, and revolve around each other, then how two of the suns seem to merge (if about the same apparent size) or embrace on a regular basis. And how the number of suns in the sky changes--sometimes with only one! What a complex mythology would most likely evolve.

And then the day that night arrives. It would most likely be a short night, but is it hard to imagine how a primitive race would panic as they look to leaders, religious leaders if they have them, to explain what was happening and there are no answers? Is this the end? As primitive humans banged on drums or shot arrows at the Moon during an eclipse, would, as in Asimov's story, people light as many fires as they can to chase away that unheard of darkness that blankets the planet?

Though would they see the stars? They do not have good night vision. If they saw the stars, would they think their suns were running away and now tiny? Or that the stars were tiny embers from a fire, the kind that float up in the air, from the fires of their suns that are now extinguished? Nightfall is a provocative story and one to read, or reread, if you are pondering what alien realities are out there in that immense expanse of space.

But could such a system be?

Scientists have discovered a planet in a four star system, 30 Ari. More on that later.


ken_anthony said...

with multiple suns in the sky, even cloudy days would be, normally, brighter than a cloudy day on Earth

Possibly not, depending on total luminosity.

David Merchant said...

Good point. If all six are in the sky, even with low luminosity, the cloudy day has a decent possibility of being brighter than an Earth cloudy day. But, yes, depends upon the luminosity. Plus, another assumption made: the cloud layers being of the same thickness. That's probably a silly assumption on my part. A thicker atmosphere could block more of the light on a cloudy day.

ken_anthony said...

We'll just have to go and see. ;-)

Anonymous said...

My recollection of the story is that the planet was at the heart of a globular cluster, I did wonder why, when the stars were so much more numerous and brighter than they are in our skys why the aliens couldn't see them when only one of the dimmer suns was in their sky, your point regarding poor night/low light vision solves that conundrum. Well done.

Andrew W