The death of a big star, much more massive than our sun, usually proceeds like this: After millions and millions of years of shiny existence, the star starts to run out of hydrogen. Without this fuel, the star can’t power the nuclear fusion that produces its light. Its core shrinks and heats up, spawning heavier and heavier elements until mostly iron remains. Within a second, the core collapses and sends star material flying in a spectacular light show—a supernova—that fades after several months. The dead star leaves behind a neutron star, a very dense object, or a black hole, the light-gobbling lurkers of the universe.
What a star isn’t supposed to do, however, is stay alive.
You’re sitting here, reading this article. Maybe it’s a hard copy, or an e-book on a tablet computer or e-reader. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re reading it on, we can be reasonably sure it’s made of some kind of stuff: paper, card, plastic, perhaps containing tiny metal electronic things on printed circuit boards. Whatever it is, we call it matter or material substance. It has a characteristic property that we call solidity. It has mass.
But what is matter, exactly? Imagine a cube of ice, measuring a little over one inch (or 2.7 centimeters) in length. Imagine holding this cube of ice in the palm of your hand. It is cold, and a little slippery. It weighs hardly anything at all, yet we know it weighs something.
I climbed up into the gazebo beside him and looked where he was pointing, at the vast, pounding ocean. A delicate spout of water breached the air. And then another. And another. And then — a fin of an orca arcing over a wave.
“They’ve been feeding all day,” he said. “I was down there watching them for the past hour. I’ve never seen them like this.”
I hurried down to the beach. The dark gray sand was velvety and warm. I walked past beached jellyfish and oyster shells and the slender bones of sea gulls. Before me was nothing but ocean — no ships, no airplanes, no buildings. The huge noise of ocean and nothing but ocean was profound, a silence in its own right, which seemed odd as I thought about it — how can noise feel like silence? Perhaps because its quality is continuous, soothing, allowing immersion. Listening, it seemed I was on the verge of some feeling or fresh understanding. As the sensation crested, a huge orca lifted up out of the water, baring its smooth gray back, and for a moment I felt its weight settle on me.
Last July, I wrote three letters in quick succession: the first to my ninth grade algebra teacher, the second to my ex-boyfriend’s mother, the third to a somewhat famous author. The letters were not emails. They were divulgent and inelegant. Filled with things I would regret admitting; written way too quickly. The punctuation was erratic, the sentence structure un-self-consciously unvaried.
The letters were ugly because I wasn’t going to send them. I typed them on my computer because there would be no recipients to appreciate the immediacy—the intimacy—of handwriting. When they were finished, I filed the letters in a folder inside a folder. I wanted them to require unearthing.
There is a species of book that presents itself as the thing it's skewering, making it tricky to review; do you cover the experience of reading the bulk of it, or do you let the twists, reversals and switches work backwards, changing everything, and cover the experience of reading it in hindsight?