Galaxy Noir: The Case of the Stellar Strangulation


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“Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death” ― William S. Burroughs


I think you’ve been stealing gas from galaxies, Dollface.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry ram-pressure stripping Santa Ana’s that come down through the Local Galactic Cluster and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every boozed-up peer review ends in a fight. Meek little tenure-track academics feel the edge of the carving knife and study their colleagues’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

I was getting one in a flossy new observatory across the street from the astronomy building where it seemed like I lived. It had been open about a week and it wasn’t doing stellar business. The kid behind the telescope was in his early twenties and looked as if he had never had a drink in his life.

There was only one other astrophysicist, a souse on a bar stool with his back to the door. He had a pile of printouts stacked neatly in front of him, about two reams’ worth. He was drinking straight rye in small glasses, muttering about dark matter halos, and he was all by himself in a world of his own.

And the question on every gumshoe’s mind was this: Who was murdering all the galaxies across the universe?  Those big brains over at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) took a look at 11000 galaxies, and found that some unsavory character has been on a spree, sweeping away their gas like a giant cosmic broom.  Galaxies are all about the gas, since it fuels star formation.  Take away the gas and all you’ve got is the lifeless corpse of a galaxy, strangled to death.

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or on a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like superheated galactic plasma. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. On the way to the Dean’s Office I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of ram-pressure stripping and all the galaxies I would never see again.

Chandler, Raymond, 1888-1959. The Big Sleep. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945.
Chandler, Raymond.  1938 short story called Red Wind
“Cold gas stripping in satellite galaxies: from pairs to clusters”, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on January 17th, 2017.