The Cinch Review

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.

…..

15 thoughts on “Universe to End as “Cold, Dead Wasteland”

  1. lovely, I’m with you….as if the treasures of heart and mind were less than the stars and dark matter..!

  2. @Mike: I didn’t know what you meant, then it hit me: the professor! “She” not “he.” You must be much better with Indian names than me, or else you follow the cosmological movers and shakers more closely. Thanks, I’m correcting it.

  3. Hey Sean,

    Over the past I dunno several months I have wallowed, you might say, on this prediction by scientists. So it is a kick reading this post. You sum up my thoughts and feelings perfectly. I’ve followed your RWB site for awhile and recall multiple email exchanges with you on the fascinating subject of Bob Dylan.

    I can’t believe people in general are not regularly discussing these latest developments in cosmology and in particular this HORRID prediction. I say this because whatever the reliability of science it sure is super-busy these last decades! Hell, this last several years! Aren’t we incredibly lucky to be alive when such breakthroughs are occurring?! And -and- as you point out, the significance of scientific discoveries and theories to the meaning of life cannot be ignored. Or I guess it can!! People in general seem more interested in celebrity gossip and crap pop-culture and their own tiny little social worlds and Facebook, twitter or whatever…..and this, for me, is profoundly revealing about human beings, btw. I believe in the theory of evolution and in any case I certainly view people as animals. People are sex and social status obsessed super-apes. I’d prefer to call us super-monkeys cause that sounds more fitting but technically we’re apes. I think of majestic Silverback Gorillas not Roger Clemens, when I think of apes. Well, he’s not a good example, but I can’t picture a Silverback taking shots of poison in it’s rear to bulk-up muscles to throw rocks faster and hit stuff with a stick with good.
    Well anyways, so as far as the THE ULTIMATE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE goes…….my dear god. What a totally depressing, horrible thing. Frozen, pitch black, dead, forever… and ever. That’s it. Our time of galaxies but a brief flash before an infinity of darkness.
    I’ve actually gotten online to talk to science geeks, physicists, whomever, about this. Hah, I like need to talk about it. I find it genuinely upsetting. I must say as far as responses go to this soul crushing prediction–well first off I absolutely agree with your apparent recognition of that scientist’s seemingly nonchalant attitude! She indeed is getting the attention members of our primate species so crave. A feather in her hat is exacting right. I have been very taken back by scientists’ cocky attitudes and seemingly unconcerned mentality with how crummy the picture cosmology will possibly affect people and society. Because even though the inattentive, distracted masses are asses there is, I feel, still an affect on the overall society. A trickle down.
    Another observation is that scientists almost always believe they are revealing such a wonderful world, vastly more amazing than mythological conceptions. Well not now! And they point out that with cosmic expansion in the future, optimistically assuming there is intelligent life, we/it will not be able to see other galaxies because they’ll be too spread out, their light unable to reach the most powerful telescopes. Back to the cosmology of the Dark Ages.
    And you are correct to note that with this gloomy forecast there is a real certainty among the scientists.
    Anyway I don’t find the picture helps me to have faith in a creator–quite the contrary. But faith is faith.

    For a fascinating talk on this subject of the Universe and its fate I highly recommend the Lawrence Krauss talk, A Universe from Nothing” I believe it is titled. Find it on YouTube. It’s uploaded on…Richard Dawkin’s site.

    The only hope I have is in the possibility of an eternal and infinite Multiverse and that our Universe is but one space-time bubble in an infinite sea of universes. A beautiful and mystical conception. But it is doubtful this Multiverse idea can be ‘proven’ and we are surely forever trapped in our own doomed universe. I am also doubtful that our violent, destructive super-ape species will last more than several more centuries. Hell never minding our own dangerous ways just Yellowstone going off or who knows what natural calamity is right around the bend. Maybe even today. And we’re stuck on a tiny bit of space rock, even the nearest stars so very, very, very far away that I think space travel is a very far fetched romantic notion.
    Oh well. Maybe I’ll get into Zen. It’s all just a void or something.

  4. @Jason: Thanks for your reflections! I agree with you that this kind of thing is incredibly important, even if it’s not noticed by very many at first. Any generally accepted theory on the origin and/or fate of the cosmos inevitably intersects with philosophy, and it bleeds into the culture and has consequences too. I wouldn’t be too harsh on the scientists involved, though, not knowing what they think of it all themselves, in a philosophical sense. It’s fair to presume that they’re just offering the results of their research. By the way, someone has reminded me that Woody Allen was all over this subject years ago, in “Annie Hall.” Relevant clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Pa34orcwwA
    Prescience indeed. (Pre-science!)

  5. Well I love the scientists. I can be harsh. I just notice they seem a) very confident they Know the fate of the Universe and just too confident in general. But maybe this is a necessary attitude for scientists to have to do their work.. History of science isn’t just a series of incommensurable paradigm shifts it seems to me, but the study of intellectual and scientific history does suggest a mildly skeptical outlook is not unreasonable. Maybe I lean towards Popper more than Kuhn. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. Life is mysterious, then we die. Lol.
    Anyways, I love Woody Allen. Lawrence Krauss is referred to as the Woody Allen of Cosmology or something. He’s compared to Woody anyhow.

  6. My faith teaches that the Universe (everything) was created so man could have the pleasure of living a righteous/kind life, thereby meriting the closeness of the Creator.

    This forecast of the Universe petering out into a cold nothingness, therefore, doesn’t phase me. If the forecast was of an endlessly collapsing and regenerating Universe, would I then be happy that my atoms would come back in some rock or fungi – I thin not.

    As Sean wrote, Universe was “not in fact created only so that it could end in coldness and darkness.”

    The material word is given to us by it’s Creator to utilize, so our souls can come close to their Creator. Once the purpose of creation is fulfilled, that’s that.

    By the way, I’ve also had the pleasure of conversing with Sean through his other great site, RWB.

  7. Dovid,

    David? That is a nice idea that a god created the Universe for us. He/She/It obviously did a terrible job. Starting with planet Earth. Why is most of the planet salt water and so much of the land useless? Why is Earth such a dangerous place and even when not life threatening it is often very uncomfortable to us living beings? Why must life feast upon itself to survive? Why is the planet not just plain bigger? And considering space, why is everything, starting even with our own moon, so unbelievably far apart? Why create the Universe in such a way that we can’t travel hardly anywhere because everything is way too far apart? You can’t logically blame Satan because Satan was created by your Creator too and the Creator knew what Satan would do just like the Creator knew Eve would eat the Apple and get Adam to take a bite. The collapsing Universe idea is not much more appealing to me either, however. Faith is faith and I have zero reason to believe in something so incoherent and at variance with experience as a Creator that made this absurd Universe for people. A Universe of BILLIONS of galaxies each containing hundreds if millions if not billions of stars, at least. Actually they are not so sure how big the Universe is. It might be infinite, according to some. In any case, we are nothing. An invisible particle. And even if a Creator knew I existed and created the Universe for us he always created it for serial killers, politicians, rapist, sociopaths, cockroaches, rats, viruses, flesh eating parasites and Lady Gaga and the Creator knows why many hairs are on Charlie Manson’s head. Wonderful. A real comfort.

  8. How many hairs are on Charlie Manson’s head, not why. I never properly proof read my posts when I talk to Sean. But the Creator know WHY too, right? It’s all so mysterious. We’ll get the answers when we go to heaven, which is located in one of the dimensions suggested to exist by String Theory. Or M Theory or whatever they call it now. Most of human history was spent in caves and woods for tens of thousands of years. Not a word from God until he picked some desert people in what we call the Middle East–another lovely place created for us. We have struggled to see the Universe more clearly and almost entirely without the help of God’s Catholic (and protestant) Church(es) we have made progress. I wonder if we will ever get in touch with other life forms? Will they know Jesus too? Like Alien Mormons? More lost tribes of God’s chosen people? Jesus flew through space after his Ascension, flying at the speed of light, to other worlds to bring God’s message of love. They were freaked out because they never saw such a bizarre looking creature. Or maybe Jesus changed form? If merely going only at the speed of light he would still be in the Milky Way galaxy so never mind the thousands? hundreds? millions? hundreds of millions? or maybe just 53 other worlds with “intelligent life” that are scattered around the void. Anyway God forgive me if I am wrong. Please don’t send me to hell forever because I doubted you exist and didn’t worship you.

  9. Jason – In the link which Sean provides above he quotes from Psalm 8. Here’s one from Home on the Range –

    How often at night when the heavens are bright
    With the light of the glittering stars
    I stand there amazed & I ask as I gaze
    Does their glory exceed that of ours?

    And how do you know it was an apple?

  10. You mean in Genesis? Satan told me. No, I don’t know it was an apple. I figure the apple is a symbol in a man-made primitive mythological tale. It makes psychological sense that a woman would tempt the man to do it. That’s the way it goes.
    As for the glory, well I sure do love stars and supernovas and nebula and stuff. It does indeed dazzle the senses. And it is all so HUGE. Like I cannot for the life of me get over the numbers. I mean I ain’t a “math person”. But even if ya are the point is space or just call it the Universe is HUGE. They should ban those little models in school they do for ‘science’ projects and stuff because they are completely misleading. See the 1000 yard model….
    http://www.noao.edu/education/peppercorn/pcmain.html

    Anyway, I don’t think people are very glorious so… I’ll go along with stars and interstellar gas clouds and space rocks etc. being more glorious. Way more. In terms of _size_ we are almost invisible but in terms complexity we are, insofar as we know now, the most complicated things in all the Universe. WAY more complex then a star or planet. By ‘we’ I mean lifeforms. And in terms of our vast complexity humans are virtually identical to beetles.

  11. Size is not everything.

    Yes, there are many people who are not so glorious.

    I’d like to see if a beetle agrees that we’re virtually identical in our vast complexity. Are we but the sum of our parts?

  12. Haha, good point. Of course the poor beetles don’t have the means to speak to us, nor to each other, being that they lack the ability to create and use complex language. Yes I should have qualified what I meant there about complexity. Very, very similar, all carbon based lifeforms are to each other BUT with a some incredible variations as well! And we are different from our ape cousins too with our language faculty and culture.

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