May. 22, 2015

The Day the Moon Blew Up

by Neal Stephenson

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The following is an excerpt from Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Listen to SciFri on May 22, 2015, for a full interview with Stephenson about the book.
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.
An amateur astronomer in Utah was the first person on earth to realize that something unusual was happening. Moments earlier, he had noticed a blur flourishing in the vicinity of the reiner gamma formation, near the moon’s equator. He assumed it was a dust cloud thrown up by a meteor strike. He pulled out his phone and blogged the event, moving his stiff thumbs (for he was high on a mountain and the air was as cold as it was clear) as fast as he could to secure the claim to himself. Other astronomers would soon be pointing their telescopes at the same dust cloud—might be doing it already! But—supposing he could move his thumbs fast enough—he would be the first to point it out. The fame would be his; if the meteorite left behind a visible crater, perhaps it would even bear his name.
His name was forgotten. By the time he had gotten his phone out of his pocket, his crater no longer existed. Nor did the moon.
When he pocketed his phone and put his eye back to the eyepiece of his telescope, he let out a curse, since all he saw was a tawny blur. He must have knocked the telescope out of focus. He began to twiddle the focus knob. This didn’t help.
Finally he pulled back from the telescope and looked with his naked eyes at the place where the moon was supposed to be. In that moment he ceased to be a scientist, with privileged information, and became no different from millions of other people around the Americas, gaping in awe and astonishment at the most extraordinary thing that humans had ever seen in the sky.
In movies, when a planet blows up, it turns into a fireball and ceases to exist. This is not what happened to the moon. The Agent (as people came to call the mysterious force that did it) released a very large amount of energy, to be sure, but not nearly enough to turn all the moon’s substance into fire.
The most generally accepted theory was that the puff of dust observed by the Utah astronomer was caused by an impact. That the Agent, in other words, came from outside the moon, pierced its surface, burrowed deep into its center, and then released its energy. Or that it simply kept on going out the other side, depositing enough energy en route to break up the moon. Another hypothesis stated that the Agent was a device buried in the moon by aliens during primordial times, set to detonate when certain conditions were met.
In any case, the result was that, first, the moon was fractured into seven large pieces, as well as innumerable smaller ones. And second, those pieces spread apart, enough to become observable as separate objects—huge rough boulders—but not enough to continue flying apart from one another. The moon’s pieces remained gravitationally bound, a cluster of giant rocks orbiting chaotically about their common center of gravity.
That point—formerly the center of the moon, but now an abstraction in space—continued to revolve around the earth just as it had done for billions of years. So now, when the people of earth looked up into the night sky at the place where they ought to have seen the moon, they saw instead this slowly tumbling constellation of white boulders.
Or at least that is what they saw when the dust cleared. For the first few hours, what had been the moon was just a somewhat-greater-than-moon-sized cloud, which reddened before the dawn and set in the west as the Utah astronomer looked on dumbfounded. Asia looked up all night at a moon-colored blur. Within, bright spots began to stand out as dust particles fell into the nearest heavy pieces. Europe and then America were treated to a clear view of the new state of affairs: seven giant rocks where the moon ought to have been.

Excerpted from Seveneves. Copyright Neal Stephenson 2015. Courtesy of William Morrow.

About Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, the three-volume historical epic The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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