Fritz Leiber's short story "A Pail of Air" (available to read online at Project Gutenberg) is set in a post-apocalyptic world, with a family who believe they are the only survivors after the Earth left the Sun and its atmosphere froze solid. The cause of the apocalypse is said to have been a "dark star":

The dark star, as Pa went on telling it, rushed in pretty fast and there wasn't much time to get ready. At the beginning they tried to keep it a secret from most people, but then the truth came out, what with the earthquakes and floods—imagine, oceans of unfrozen water!—and people seeing stars blotted out by something on a clear night. [...] You see, the dark star was going through space faster than the Sun, and in the opposite direction, and it had to wrench the world considerably in order to take it away.

Is it possible to identify this "dark star" in terms of our knowledge of real-world astronomy? Was it a black hole? (It sounds implausible that a black hole would travel through space and snatch just a single planet away from its star, but how much was known about black holes in 1951 when this story was published?) Or is "dark star" just a sufficiently sci-fi and scary sounding term to suit the purposes of the story?

  • 2
    I always thought the "dark stars" in science fiction were just "burned out stars" or black dwarfs. Like the title star in John Campbell's novel The Black Star Passes.
    – user14111
    Feb 21 at 2:28
  • 1
    That is interesting, @user14111. Would you care to expand that comment into an answer? It would be a good one.
    – verbose
    Feb 21 at 4:05
  • It's mostly a plot device.
    – Mark
    Feb 21 at 19:36

The term "dark star" was coined by John Michell in 1783. Maria Popova's blog post Mapping the Heavens: How Cosmology Shaped Our Understanding of the Universe and the Strange Story of How the Term “Black Hole” Was Born on Brain Pickings (27 June 2016) quotes the following passage from Priyamvada Natarajan's book Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos (Yale University Press, 2016):

In 1783, when an English country parson, John Michell, first proposed the idea of a “dark star,” he could never have imagined that we would one day detect them. (...) In a letter to Henry Cavendish dated November 27, 1783, Michell anticipated that such “dark stars” would be observable only by the impact they had on bodies revolving around them.

The last sentence matches the description in the short story very well. The term "black hole" was coined in the 1960s, a few years after the publication of Leiber's short story.

Strictly speaking, a radio-quiet neutron star could have the same impact as that described in the story. However, even though the existence of neutron stars had already been proposed in the 1930s, no neutron starts were detected until the 1960s, years after the publication of The Pail of Air".

(A comment by user14111 mentions that it might have been a black dwarf. However, the black dwarf appears to be a "theoretical stellar remnant" that has not been observed yet.)

  • 4
    Michell's "dark stars" aka "Newtonian black holes" are bodies so massive their escape velocity exceeds the speed of light, making them invisible. I doubt Leiber was thinking of anything that exlotic (and obsolete) when he wrote that story. The fact that black dwarfs have not yet been observed (or had time to form according to modern cosmology) wouldn't keep then out of sci-fi; alien life forms haven't been observed either. Burned-out "stellar remnants" were fairly common in Golden Age sci-fi, e.g. Campbell's The Black Star Passes wherein the exact term "dark star" is used once.
    – user14111
    Feb 21 at 5:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.