Absolute Zero

Beneath the unblinking eye of a gibbous moon, palm fronds dance in a heavenly breeze, casting shade upon dozens of stargazers as they colonize O’ahu’s Ala Moana Beach Park. Even in the dead of winter, the weather is perfect, a balmy seventy-four degrees. The American Astronomical Society has deployed their instruments, trained their sights on Venus, on the Orion nebula, on Luna’s sunlit craters, and on what might be the glowing remains of Beetlegeuse. Mingling with curious locals, the astronomers from the nearby annual convention – mainlanders wearing polo shirts logoed by Raytheon, Boeing, NASA – patiently wait their turn to gaze across deep time. Cockroaches, most active at night, scuttle and flutter through moonbeams, feast upon decay within the hollows of a Banyan tree – a lovely but invasive species, strangling its native host under the cover of darkness.

Astronomy in Hawai’i was born amid the wreckage of a tsunami in 1960. Disaster capitalism. Bulbous chameleon eyes, doing their best to blend into the local culture of celestial navigation, now trace the stars from the summit of a sacred mountain. The glacial depths of space reveal many secrets about terrestrial life, about the ways in which temperature and pressure lead to creation – or destruction. Yet telescopic myopia blinds these nocturnal farseers to the face of the mountain god, The Sky Father Wakea, beneath their boots.

The darkest of dark nebulae are near impenetrable to starlight, their icy hearts near free of motion. The Boomerang Nebula is the coldest yet discovered; its shape, though, is more accurately described as an hourglass. Indeed, it keeps time well: since King Iry-Hor was immortalized in Egyptian hieroglyphics, these photons have been traversing the void. All of recorded history, elapsed by the time they twinkle our astronomers’ starry eyes. Like their namesake boomerang though, these photons end up where they started, so very near to absolute zero. As it turns out, the coldest place in the universe, colder still than the black vacuum of space, is in a physics laboratory right here on Earth.

Michael Bishop is an MFA candidate at the University of Idaho hailing from Oahu, Hawaii. Informed by studies in psychology and philosophy, and a career in environmental work and emergency rescue, his writing often explores the reciprocal determinism between nature and humanity. His work appears in The Normal School, About Place Journal, High Desert Journal, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a 2021 creative writing Fulbright grant in New Zealand.

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