‘The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.’
― Carl Sagan
Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone (1888)
He would have turned twenty-six two days ago. The little one would have been fourteen. There would have been five of us shuffling through songs on the radio in the car. You would have been driving, after all you are now eighteen, wearing the brown leather jacket I got you, I the gold-rimmed studs you got me. You, on the other side of childhood and me, the other side of you switching gears. Wayfarers and Aviators in the afternoon sun, shimmering like stars.
Stars form when dense gas clouds collapse under gravity. Normally an infant star heats up until the hydrogen at its center begins to fuse, releasing a flood of energy. But sometimes a star-in-the-making falls short. Too small to ignite that fusion engine, it becomes a ‘brown dwarf.’
From the backseat, she would have been giving you instructions, warning you about the potholes in the road. I may be the eldest but we all know who really would have been the captain of this car. We also know the little one would have been singing along to Abba, Amy McDonald or Winehouse, making the words up as he went along. I wonder what the fifth member of our crew, the birthday boy, would have said or sung.
Despite their name, brown dwarfs are of different colors. Many brown dwarfs would likely appear magenta to the human eye, or possibly orange or red.
We would have gone on a road trip to celebrate his twenty-sixth. Like the one we went on four years ago, remember? I drove the Mini Cooper back then. We would have gone to dinner, the movies, a concert. It would not have mattered where we went. We would have driven to the top of the mountain at midnight, lay on our backs to watch the sky.
The brown dwarf is a star so small it slowly bleeds away its heat till it reaches the cool ‘Y dwarf’ stage.
She would have sung. You would have played the guitar you would have brought along in the trunk. I do not know whether he would have played like you; I imagine he would have sung either way. I would have dreamed of starting a band, and the little one I think would have clapped and sung too, then fallen asleep in my lap.
Its temperature becomes cooler than that of the human body. Theoretically, you could hold one in your hand.
He would have blown out the flame of a lighter and solemnly cut a chocolate bar. We would have each had a piece while making dozens of wishes on the dozens of shooting stars we saw.
Y dwarfs are the smallest, coldest members of the star family. Too small to fuse atoms at their core, they cannot burn with the fire that keeps stars shining steadily for billions of years.
Instead, they cool and fade with time, until what little light they emit is infrared.
We would have given him the largest piece of course, and let him make the first wish.
Y dwarfs are too faint to be detected by visible-light telescopes, but we know they are there.
That is how we would have spent today, the 8th of December, 2016. If such had been life, and such had been our story. If the human eye could see little stars on the other side of a telescope.
Instead we are on different sides of the globe, and different sides of the universe. She is fast asleep, too many time zones ahead, and we are missing the birthday boy and little one whose bed is still in your room.
You and I are on the phone, sitting by different radios, listening to the same song. Looking across the same sky, guessing at one another, and at little stars we cannot see.
It is a different 8th of December, 2016, but we still have a birthday to celebrate. You find the lighter and blow out the flame. For all five of us, I will make the wish.
‘May the Lord keep watch between you and me while you are on the other side.’