(Note: Sorry for the lack of updates for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been working in wilderness area and am in the process of moving.)
Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” (first published in 1941, collected in “Nightfall and Other Stories”, 1970) is considered to be one of his best stories. The tale is an account of a civilization experiencing total darkness for the first time as a result of a rare astronomical phenomenon. What I find most interesting is that it “predicted” a science that wouldn’t be formalized for another 30 years: geomythology.
The discipline, which attempts to extend the record of observation, was developed by Indiana University geologist Dorothy Vitaliano during the late 60s and early 70s, with the first conference in the subject being held in 1973. The basic idea behind the science goes something like this: oral histories and myth contain observations about the world that were important to the mythmakers. Through careful study and interpretation, the events described in the myth can be fairly well attributed to historical events.
For example, the eruption of Mt. Mazama (now Crater Lake) can be dated to within a timespan of a few years through radiometric methods, but just studying the Crater Lake area would tell you nothing about the sequence of events that lead up to the eruption. Fortunately for us (but probably not for us), several tribes of Klamath Indians living in the area at the time witnessed the massive eruption. Their tribal myths, which record the event from different distances from the volcano have allowed us to determine a sequence of events. From those stories, as far as we can tell, the volcano became increasingly active with large lava fountains and pyroclastic flows, topped off by an eruption that darkened the skies for hundreds of miles.
Other areas of study include documenting sea level rise since the close of the last Ice Age, finding recurrence intervals of large earthquakes that have been populated for thousands of years but only studied for a couple of hundred years, or documenting ancient fossil finds by comparing known fossil species to their descriptions of monsters.
The lead scientists of Asimov’s story think along these lines when they study an archive of their civilization’s past history recorded in heavily mythological form in a book called The Book of Revelations. The book records a civilization-ending event that occurs like clockwork every 2000 years. Archeological evidence has found that the big cities on the planet have been burned several times at approximately the same interval.
Faced with this dilemma, a group of astronomers attempt to figure out why. The planet’s five suns make the night (and subsequently all knowledge of any astronomical object but the suns) unknown. However, through careful study of the suns’ movements, they eventually puzzle out the law of gravitation. Even more careful study discovers an anomaly – there’s another large planet in the system, one that the blazing light of the suns makes all but invisible.
Their study, aided by interpreting events recorded in the The Book of Revelations, finds that approximately every 2000 years, four suns set, while the final one is eclipsed by the planet. They confirm this by tracing the position of the suns and planet back thousands of years and see that they match well with dates determined by archeology. They also find that the next one is imminent and prepare accordingly.
With the major puzzle solved, they also attempt to plan their observations that would explain several other phenomena. For example, the mystery of the “stars”, demons that appear in the darkness and steal men’s souls. The astronomers theorize that they could be more distant suns, but are unable to explain exactly why the theft of souls are attributed to them. Based on some very scanty psychological evidence, they theorize that the darkness induces claustrophobia, and this is just attributed by the fact that the stars appear right as the claustrophobia attack hits its peak.
Spoiler [highlight to see]: [ The star system is actually located in the middle of a globular cluster, and the sky is completely filled with tens of thousands of stars, bursting out of the heavens as darkness falls. The sight of so many stars filling the skies drives the main characters insane.]
One of the things that I admire about Asimov is that he (along with Clarke) were able to envision new uses of space sciences and write stories that were both interesting from a scientific standpoint, while still managing to entertain at the same time. Here, Asimov is operating partly in “science-writer” mode, writing the results of a thought experiment about what would happen to a world that never experiences darkness. To build a longer historical timeline, he describes what are now the foundations of a small but flourishing geoscience. “Nightfall” is an example of Asimov’s scientific prescience, and as a result, it justly deserves its place in the pantheon of great Asimov stories.