Universe to End as “Cold, Dead Wasteland”

Earth (for now)That’s it. The end. For real and forever. Now that you know, how does it make you feel, exactly? As published in the journal Science, and summarized below by the BBC:

Astronomers used the way that light from distant stars was distorted by a huge galactic cluster known as Abell 1689 to work out the amount of dark energy in the cosmos.

Dark energy is a mysterious force that speeds up the expansion of the universe.

Understanding the distribution of this force revealed that the likely fate of the universe was to keep on expanding.


Eventually it will become a cold, dead wasteland with a temperature approaching what scientists term “absolute zero”.

Professor Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University, a leading cosmologist and co-author of this study, said that the findings finally proved “exactly what the fate of the universe will be”.

Hmmm. And how does Professor Natarajan feel about that, I wonder? She seems happy enough to be the messenger, and I suppose it is quite the feather in her cap.

You would think that this news about the ultimate fate of the universe and everything that it has ever contained — including all of our lives, legacies and dreams — would be getting more attention, and indeed perhaps it will once it filters out through the rest of what’s going on in the headlines today, like the baseball player Roger Clemens being indicted for perjury and the salmonella-induced recall of 340 million eggs in the United States.

Mr. Clemens himself can take comfort from the fact that his accusers and his prosecutors, and whatever descendants and paperwork they may produce, will also end up cold and dead, floating in the wasteland to come. The egg producers can contemplate their financial losses a little more philosophically, knowing now that all the treasures of humankind will ultimately be reduced to useless, dispersed, inert matter with a temperature of (roughly) absolute zero.

Now, I follow astronomical and cosmological news with some interest, albeit that of a layman, but to me this declaration by these researchers seems quite different to things I’ve heard before about the universe’s ultimate fate, not least in the degree of certitude being adopted. I’d heard before the theory that the universe would continue expanding to a certain point, and then start contracting back in on itself. This at least suggested the possibility of an eternal cycle of some kind, expanding and contracting. Disruptive to things like accurate time keeping, air travel and, ah, climate, no doubt, but at least things would go on in some way. None of that now. A “cold, dead wasteland.” It has more than a ring of finality about it. It is a true hammer blow of total terminality.

But what does it matter? Obviously we’re talking about an eventuality that is zillions of years in the future. It is beyond our practical ability to even conceive of how human beings would be living then, if indeed they are living then. No doubt people would have traveled to other stars by that time, and colonized many other planets. Perhaps medical advances would have resulted in individuals who can live thousands of years. (Imagine how much information Google will have on everyone by then!) Who can even speculate about a point so far in the future?

Still: “a cold, dead wasteland.” It’s difficult to see how even the most advanced civilization gets around that one. The stars have all gone out. All energy, of any kind, has dissipated and expended itself. It’s awful darned cold and completely dark. It’s the end. I’m thinking this must come as a particularly harsh vision to those who understandably have taken comfort from what we might call (in the words of the great British philosopher Elton John) the “circle of life.” There is birth, and there is death, and there is birth again, and so on. You and those you love may die (well, will die in fact) but the cells and the very atoms that made up your body go on and get recycled, leading to the birth of new plants, new animals, new humans and the continued flourishing of life and of nature. Truly, whenever something dies new things are born. But all that’s gone now, isn’t it? Life isn’t truly a circle, anymore, if these scientists are correct. It is a straight line from the life and liveliness of the universe as we know it now to the coldness and deadness of what the universe ultimately will be.

It’s in some way genuinely depressing to reflect upon such a fate for everything that we know or ever could know, isn’t it? One needs to believe in a future, to have some brand of hope, however slim, for something. Zillions of years hence or not, the notion that everything will inevitably end in bleak and frozen darkness is demoralizing. Is “get it while you can” the only philosophy that really amounts to anything, now?

Well, as I see it, there’s a couple of ways out of this terminal grimness. First, you might choose to trust that these scientists are wrong. And considering the frequency through human history with which the grand cosmological theories have been revised, that’s not such a vain hope. You may have faith instead that a better theory will emerge which allows for some kind of continuation of the universe in a changing, living form. So you can keep up your gym membership, give birth to that baby, plant that tree or write that book, because something of everything will survive somehow in some form; that is, assuming Professor Natarajan et al are mistaken and that a preferable theory has yet to be developed and proven. Call it a conditional kind of hope, but better than no hope at all.

Or, instead, you may find it possible to chuckle at notions of the end of everything, as I try to, if you believe that the universe was not in fact created only so that it could end in coldness and darkness. The nub of this is believing that it was in fact created, that it did not just come into being or just always was, somehow. Anybody, any God, who could create such a universe then surely has the ability to renew it. That’s the basket I’m putting my eggs into anyhow — the recalled ones and otherwise. Someone once offered the unsurpassably precious assurance that every sparrow is noted and remembered, and that every single hair on each of our heads is counted, by someone whose memory, I guess, makes even Google’s great server-farm of data seem tiny and transient as a firefly.

The very life and liveliness of our universe surely attests to a fate better than a “cold, dead wasteland,” doesn’t it? So poets and prophets have always believed, at least the ones we like to read. So I believe too.

Now I’m off to take a little walk in the park and watch the sun set.