[GUEST POST] Kristi Helvig on How Astrophysics Informed BURN OUT

Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. She muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics on her blog and Twitter. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs. Grab a copy of BURN OUT on Amazon, Indiebound, or Barnes & Noble.

How Astrophysics Informed BURN OUT

by Kristi Helvig

My debut sci-fi novel BURN OUT focuses on one of Earth’s last survivors when our sun becomes a red giant after it starts to burn out way ahead of schedule. The entire premise came about while watching an astrophysics documentary and I was riveted by what our world would eventually look like. That same week, the temperature in my hometown of Denver skyrocketed to one hundred and five, and I could easily imagined a scorched, dead Earth. I just needed the sun burning out to happen sooner than predicted for the purposes of my story.

Unfortunately, my Ph.D. is in clinical psychology instead of astrophysics, so watching documentaries didn’t give me all the answers I needed. For one, I needed a plausible way for the sun to burn out early and I soon discovered that was something all the documentaries and googling in the world couldn’t help me to resolve. An interesting fact I learned along the way was that the sun would not sustain significant damage even if all the nuclear weapons on the planet were detonated on it. This was good news for Earthlings, but bad news for a writer looking for a catalyst.

My next step was contacting a respected astrophysics program at a large university. I’ve found that if you don’t know an answer to a question, the only way to go is to straight to the experts. I got incredibly lucky that they were willing to help me. Turns out that my amateur research was correct in that it’s incredibly unlikely for our sun to burn out early-luckily for us. However, one of the astrophyics professors gave me a scenario where it could be possible, despite being improbable. For a sci-fi writer, hearing that something is possible is magic to the ears. I was told that if an asteroid hit the sun, it normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but if that asteroid contained more dark matter than scientists had seen before, it could cause unprecedented reactions, including the sun burning out early.

If you’re on the internet, you can’t help but notice all the reported close calls that Earth has with asteroids, so I wondered what would happen if an asteroid came along that was predicted to actually make contact with Earth. What if we tried to divert that asteroid and succeeded, but accidentally sent it into the sun instead? And then we discover that the asteroid was filled with huge amounts of dark matter which accelerate the burning of the sun’s fuel, and bam-it’s the beginning of the end for Earth.

Though the story of BURN OUT is ultimately about the human struggle for survival and finding meaning in a world that is unforgiving and bleak, the initial impetus for the book came about from a simple television documentary. The vast amount of unanswered questions about our universe means that there will be plenty of material for sci-fi writers for a long time to come. As I’ve just finished writing the second book in the series, I can say without a doubt that the next time I’m in need of a story idea, I’m going to watch another documentary. Fact and fiction make great companions, and often, compelling stories.