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Remembering ‘The Midnight Sun’

Lois Nettleton in The Midnight SunA recent post by Greg Laughlin on his systemic site triggers memories of a Twilight Zone episode called ‘The Midnight Sun.’ Laughlin (UC-SC) was speculating about what would happen to the Earth’s orbit if the Solar System were disrupted by another star. That inevitably called up the still vivid image of two women sweltering in a New York apartment (one of them, the actress Lois Nettleton, is pictured above). The plot: The Earth has moved closer to the Sun, and all hell is about to break loose.

Here’s Rod Serling’s introduction, following the brief introductory scene:

“The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is ‘doomed,’ because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago, the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the Sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries – they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone.”

‘The Midnight Sun’ ran on November 17, 1961, and absorbing as it was (with a true Twilight Zone twist at the end), this ‘minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare,’ as Serling called it, left a major question unanswered. Exactly how did the Earth leave its stable orbit and begin its lethal migration? Laughlin tackles that question. He works out the odds (drawing on a paper he wrote with Fred Adams) that Earth’s orbit might be altered sometime between now and the transformation of the Sun into a red giant.

The result: There is a one in 200,000 chance that the Earth’s orbit will be seriously disrupted in that period. And the chance of capture to another star before the Sun destroys our biosphere is about one in 2,000,000. If we’re captured to a red dwarf, we can look forward to about a trillion years of stable stellar luminousity. It’s an intriguing scenario whose details are sketched on systemic and fully developed in the earlier paper. That study is Laughlin et al., “The frozen Earth: Binary scattering events and the fate of the Solar System,” Icarus Vol. 145 (2000), pp. 614-627. The online reference is here.

One in two million makes for some long odds. But as Laughlin adds, “…people regularly line up to buy powerball tickets with far less chance of striking the jackpot. After all, someone’s gotta win.” I suspect we’ll be coming right back to systemic, since its next post is to be by Paul Shankland, who will report on his work on habitable planets around low-mass stars. And as long-time readers know, habitability around M dwarfs is a continuing preoccupation here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Malcolm Ramsay January 5, 2007, 10:34

    I’ve never seen that Twilight Zone, but it immediately reminds me of the wonderful Brit equivalent, “The Day The Earth Caught Fire” (http://imdb.com/title/tt0054790/). OK, the science is mostly bollocks, but the wonderful performances and the remarkable (even now!) sequences of London with the dried -out Thames snaking throught it are remarkably evocative still. There are one or two “Ignore The Rat” moments (ask a Doctor Who fan), but it still stands the test of time and is definitely recommended viewing for fans of intelligent (but not necessarily accurate) science fiction.

  • Administrator January 5, 2007, 10:38

    Good grief, I can’t believe I haven’t run into “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” before. Thanks for the tip, Malcolm! I’ll see if Netflix has it.

  • Brett January 5, 2007, 11:07

    Who needs the Twilight Zone … it’s 3am here in Melbourne and still 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). Now I’m off to get a few hours’ fitful sleep while it’s relatively cool!

  • larry January 6, 2007, 1:36

    Going back a bit further here’s a mp3 X-minus radio story called a pail of air.

    It deals with a comet pulling Earth out of orbit and how one scientist and his family survied. I have always wonder if what he did was actually possible in some type fashion.


    Abstract from the web site
    3/28/56 ***
    This time it’s not men that are destroying the world, it’s a comet that’s pulled the Earth away from it’s orbit. Two children hear their parents talk about what it’s like to have a sun and plenty of air to breath. Now they have to breath from buckets of air. Real depressing, effective imagery by Fritz Leiber.

  • ljk March 1, 2007, 17:50

    Astrophysics, abstract

    From: Eva Villaver [view email]

    Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2007 21:01:19 GMT (82kb)

    Can Planets survive Stellar Evolution?

    Authors: Eva Villaver (STScI/ESA), Mario Livio (STScI)

    Comments: 30 pages, 7 figures, 2 tables, accepted for publication in ApJ

    We study the survival of gas planets around stars with masses in the range 1-5 Msun, as these stars evolve off the Main Sequence. We show that planets with masses smaller than one Jupiter mass do not survive the Planetary Nebula phase if located initially at orbital distances smaller than (3-5) AU. Planets more massive than two Jupiter masses around low mass (1 Msun on the Main Sequence) stars survive the Planetary Nebula stage down to orbital distances of 3 AU. As the star evolves through the Planetary Nebula phase, an evaporation outflow will be established at the planet’s surface. Evaporating planets may be detected using spectroscopic observations. Planets around white dwarfs with masses M_WD > 0.7 Msun are generally expected to be found at orbital radii r > 15 AU. If planets are found at smaller orbital radii around massive white dwarfs, they had to form as the result of the merger of two white dwarfs.


  • ljk April 9, 2007, 10:54


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