by Peter Jekel
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space.
The date of December 21, 2012 is fast approaching and to many it spells the end of the world as we know it. The date is based on predictions of the Mayan calendar as well as on prophecies of the soothsayer, Nostradamus. We can only wait and see.
As catastrophic as the prediction is, it will not be the end of time. Humans will survive as will life on Earth. There are many science fiction novels with a doomsday scenario whereby some catastrophic event occurs and a pocketful of humans, at least, survives. If we begin to expand our horizons soon, such as looking at the colonization of space, even the most catastrophic event on Earth will not spell the end for humankind. Several authors have taken the scenario further and moved to suggest that the colonization of space is our only hope for the future. Eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, has also recently echoed that same sentiment.
However, there is one catastrophe that humankind will not be able to escape and it not the end of the Earth, but the end of the universe. To understand how the universe will end, we first have to understand how it began.
There was a time when scientists believed that the universe was static with no beginning and no end. It just existed. Ironically, even though Albert Einstein believed in the static universe, it was his Theory of General Relativity first published in 1916 that first opened the gate to suggest that the universe was not static, but indeed evolving.
Physicists have come up with a number of solutions to the equations of general relativity. One, in particular, that of Belgian Roman Catholic priest, physicist and astronomer Georges Lemaitre, in 1927, pointed to the idea of the universe beginning as a singularity, otherwise known as the Big Bang. Based on Lamaitre’s work, there was a solution that became known as Hubble’s Law that indicated that the velocity at which various galaxies are receding from us proportional to distance. Therefore, we had a plausible beginning to the universe and an evolution towards something, at least mathematically.
In 1929, when American astronomer, Edwin Hubble discovered through his observations of Cepheid variable stars, that the universe was indeed expanding. Astronomers now had the evidence both mathematically and observationally that the universe was indeed expanding, but expanding towards what?
Science fiction writers, too, have been speculating on the demise of the universe. As early as 1930, Olaf Stapleton in his novel Star Maker, a sequel to a similar book, entitled Last and First Men, wrote of the entire history of the life of the universe. His imaginings of the end of the universe, in particular, are accurate in their concept, but incorrect in orders of magnitude. All in all a truly monumental task. Some critics have commented that Stapleton was not writing a novel, but trying to create a new religion.
Another famous science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, in his short story, Nine Billion Names of God also looks philosophically at the end of the universe. The story is especially well known for its summary phrase, ‘Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.’
John Updike, an author not known for writing science fiction, wrote Roger’s Version in which the two main characters, a computer student and a professor of divinity, question the nature of the universe including its eventual end.
Kurt Vonnegut saw the demise of the universe somewhat differently in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. In the story, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is contacted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They tell Pilgrim that one of their scientists will destroy the universe while testing a new type of fuel. The reason that they are aware of the impending doom is that Tralfamadoreans are able to perceive all of time instantaneously, thus eliminating the concept of past, present and future. There is no timeline for such a catastrophe as there is no predicting what a future technology, alien or human will bring. Who knows, forget all of the theories, a technological achievement may be the ultimate fate of the universe.
In spite of the mathematical and observational evidence of a Big Bang and an expanding universe, there was suggested by Fred Hoyle, an English astronomer, that there was an alternative to the Big Bang. He favoured the Steady State Theory as it is known that suggested that the universe was expanding and that matter was created spontaneously as it did so. In this model, the universe is uniform throughout. Interestingly enough, even though Hoyle was an advocate of the Steady State Theory, he was the one who actually coined the term “Big Bang” in a 1950 radio broadcast.
Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, while working at the Bell Laboratories in 1964, detected Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation. This background radiation is easily explained with the Big Bang Theory but more difficult to account for with the Steady State Theory. The Big Bang Theory won the day as the likely birth of our universe and is now generally accepted by cosmologists as the likely start to our universe.
To determine when the universe began, astronomers measured the expansion of the universe using 1A supernovae (the result of a cataclysmic white dwarf star explosion) as their baseline, temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background radiation and other sophisticated measurements to work their way back in time to come up with a relatively precise moment when the universe began. The Big Bang is calculated to have occurred 13.73 billion years ago plus or minus 0.12 billion years. Now the universe has a definite beginning. How it ends up is anybody’s guess, but it is dependent on a number of factors.
When Einstein first found that his Theory of General Relativity was predicting a changing universe which countered his strong belief in a static one, he added a cosmological constant; the constant was put in place to create a static universe. When Hubble showed with his observations, however, that the universe was expanding, Einstein referred to his constant as ‘the greatest blunder of my life.’
Perhaps Einstein was too hasty in his self-criticism. In 1998, observations of supernovae in distant galaxies showed that the universe is not only expanding, but doing so at an accelerated pace. To account for this accelerated expansion, cosmologists came up with a form of energy that is now known as “dark energy.” Dark energy is essentially a positive cosmological constant. It allows for the continued and accelerating expansion of space in spite of the contracting force of gravity. Therefore, we see that the universe is indeed evolving, but evolving towards what?
To further complicate this evolution is another factor that has been introduced by astronomers. The factor is dark matter that was first introduced to explain astronomical observations made during the 1970’s and 80’s that showed that there was not enough matter in the visible universe to account for the apparent gravitational pull between galaxies, both within and without. Up to 90% of the matter in the universe is now calculated to be dark matter. The universe that we can see is only a small proportion of what is actually out there. Dark matter does not emit light nor does it interact with visible matter except gravitationally. It is literally all around us. In the very room that you are sitting reading this article, there is dark matter. Even though we cannot see it, the concept of dark matter is now generally accepted by astronomers as being real despite the fact that we have been unable to detect any particles of dark matter unlike visible matter. However, numerous indirect observations support its existence such as galaxy cluster velocity dispersions, large scale structures, gravitational lensing and X-ray measurements of galaxy clusters.
Some science fiction authors have taken it upon themselves to explore dark matter in their stories. Stephen Baxter, in his Xeelee sequence of novels and stories has developed a backdrop of an epic battle between advanced lifeforms known as the Xeelee and dark matter creatures known as photino birds.
Robert Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction writer, in his novel, Starplex, also speculates on the nature of dark matter and dark matter life forms as well.
Therefore, we see that the fate of our universe is situated in a tug of war between two unseen entities, dark energy and dark matter. Whichever one wins out will ultimately determine the fate of our universe.
One early theory of the fate of the universe is the Big Crunch. At some distant point in the future, the universe will expand to a point after which it will collapse in on itself. Gravity, or dark matter, will ultimately be the victor in the cosmos. The universe will collapse back into a singularity from which it initially sprang.
Big Crunch has been looked at by some science fiction authors. Robert Sawyer, in his novel, Calculating God, has humans interact with an alien species to understand a God that survived the Big Crunch and is now manipulating its evolution for its own purposes.
In his comedic satirical series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams offers the end of the universe as a spectator sport. Patrons of a Restaurant at the End of the Universe are projected through time to the end times. It is described by one of the characters in the novel as nothing more than the Big Bang in reverse, essentially the Big Crunch.
Gregory Benford and Mark Martin in A Darker Geometry put a small twist to the idea of a Big Crunch. In their novel, our universe is being manipulated by a species from another universe that is about to enter the Big Crunch.
However the Big Crunch is looked at, it is a dismal end to the universe. Everything that we have created, thought or built is destroyed. It also appears to be contrary to the principles of quantum mechanics. To account for this discrepancy, a more optimistic version of the Big Crunch has been theorized and is known as the Big Bounce. This theory suggests that our universe is part of a cycle. Our present universe formed out of a singularity that was made from a former universe that collapsed in on itself. It will happen again and our universe’s demise will be the forerunner of a new universe, very different than our own. Our present universe will be ultimately destroyed as well but it does lay the foundation for a new universe.
Poul Anderson writes in his enduring classic Tau Zero a tale of a constantly accelerating starship that is able to survive the Big Crunch by navigating a course to avoid the eventual singularity and emerge into the new universe, in effect the Big Bounce.
What would happen, however, if dark energy is the ultimate victor in the universal tug of war? All of the scenarios with dark energy as the victor are very bleak indeed and will leave, should anyone survive to the bitter end, a very lonely place. The universe, in one scenario, will expand at a constantly slower pace, but never actually stop. Star formation would, however, cease and all those remaining would eventually burn out. Temperatures in such a universe drop to just above absolute zero. Such a fate is known as the Big Freeze.
If we stretch this theory further, we come to what is known as the Heat Death of the universe. In this scenario, the protons that make up the nuclei of atoms would become unstable and all visible matter would disappear, leaving only an empty space filled with radiation and black holes.
Interestingly enough, this fate of the universe was first proposed by Lord Kelvin in 1851. He looked at the universe as a closed system where in time the Second Law of Thermodynamics would come into play at some distant time in the future. As predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that all systems will tend toward entropy, the universe will increase to a point where there is no organized form of energy to be extracted. Bleak and empty is the final fate of our universe in this version of events. Eventually, as predicted by Stephen Hawking, the black holes themselves would evaporate. This gloomy scene has not been lost on science fiction writers.
Isaac Asimov speculated on the end of the universe in the form of a Heat Death in his novel The Gods Themselves. However, his more important fictional work on the end of the universe is a 1955 short story that has endured to the present day. The Last Question revolves around a constantly evolving supercomputer; humans ask the crucial question as to whether the entropy can be reversed. Insufficient data is the answer. By the end of the story, after the universe has succumbed to heat death, a computer in another universe discovers how to reverse entropy with the phrase, “Let there be light! And there was light.” So the story ends.
In Matter’s End, a short story by Gregory Benford, there is a description of the protons being found to decay by physicists which spells the ultimate end of the universe by Heat Death.
Expansion of the universe could even go further as predicted by the Big Rip. In this scenario, the universe, under the expanding force of dark energy, will reach a point in the distant future, where matter will literally be torn apart. Not only will there be no stars or planets, but the very atoms that make up the planets and stars and everything else will be torn down to their most basic particles. The resultant universe will be a sea of elementary particles. Stephen Baxter explored this with the main character being able to be witness the beginning of such as catastrophe in his short story, Last Contact.
In another more recently developed theory, the Big Brake, the universe will continue to expand only to come to a spectacular halt. Such an end would be a traumatic event for any life that may still exist, as all matter will then be subjected to infinite tidal forces.
With quantum mechanics and string theory, as well as particulate evidence from our ever-increasingly complex particle accelerators, scientists have also developed scenarios of the end of the universe that would make science fiction readers very comfortable. It may be that our universe is not alone that we are in the company of many universes or a multiverse. Though first coined by William James, an American philosopher in 1895, the concept of a multiverse has its foundation in ancient Hindu cosmology. Their cosmology argues that there are infinite universes, each with their own planets, inhabitants and even gods. Such universes are bubble-shaped and clustered together. There is, however, no interaction between the universes because of a protective outer shell.
One theory that appears to have garnered favour with cosmologists is the Membrane or M-Theory, an outgrowth of String Theory. In simple terms, string theory is an attempt to reconcile two basics of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics which are essential to our understanding of the universe but at the same time at seeming odds with one another. Strings are one-dimensional building blocks that combine to create two dimensional membranes that exist in an 11 dimensional space
In M-theory, the universe is one of many in a multiverse which are made up of membranes. As part of this multiverse, cosmologists theorize that the Big Bang that created our universe was triggered by a collision between the membranes of two universes. Unfortunately, there is currently no predicting as to when this may happen again.
James Blish in his series Cities in Flight written in 1955 and 1962 is ended with the demise of the universe in which a collision with another universe occurs. Optimistically, the characters in the story are able then to ‘seed’ the new universes.
Another variation of the Big Bang Theory, known as the Chaotic Inflation Theory, has resemblances to Hoyle’s Steady State Theory. It was first proposed by Andrei Linde in 1986. The theory summarizes that each universe in a mulitverse had its beginning as a bubble of a parent universe. Due to quantum fluctuations, the bubbles, or quantum foam, create more bubbles or foam. These bubbles, in turn, expand to create new universes, each with different physical laws and constants. An interesting novel about such a parallel universe with a different set of physical laws is Raft, by Stephen Baxter. It tells of a group of humans that get trapped in another universe where the gravity is a billion times as strong as it is in our universe. With the bubble universe, our universe may not even end but bud like a yeast cell to yield new ones. If this is true, our universe will never truly end. As some universes are annihilated, new ones are created. COSM, by Gregory Benford, is a tale of the creation of a bubble universe in a laboratory.
Another scenario is the Many Worlds Interpretation of Hugh Everett. In this theory developed in 1957 and formulated using quantum mechanics, the universe contains random events which the theory states are deterministic. For example, if you roll a die, you have six possible outcomes. You cannot predict which outcome will happen. Statistical formulae only predict a probability that a certain event will occur, but that is all that it is, a probability. In the Many Worlds Interpretation, the universe will split into six different versions each with a different outcome. Merely rolling a die, therefore, results in six different worlds, each of which cannot interact with one another.
Science fiction authors have taken off with this concept and run with it. In fact, a whole new genre of speculative fiction has been developed called alternative histories. It utilizes the technique of altering a key or not so key moment in history and extrapolating what that change might occur in the descendant modern world.
Ray Bradbury wrote one of the first stories using the concept of the Many Worlds Interpretation that shows what happens when one event occurs as opposed to another. Ironically, Bradbury wrote his story before Everett even formulated his Many Worlds Interpretation. In his 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, a time traveler ventures back into the Cretaceous period only to inadvertently kill a butterfly. This sets in motion a whole set of events that alter the future of the world.
Many authors have chosen the moment of altering the outcome of the Second World War as their turn in history to the point where such stories could be considered a subgenre in itself. One of the first was written in 1962 by Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. There are numerous other examples including Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, Eric Norden’s The Ultimate Solution, William Overgard’s The Divide, Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen’s 1945, Robert Harris’ Fatherland and Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies and The Man with an Iron Heart, to name just a few.
The alternate history subgenre is only limited by the imagination of the writer. Others such as Robert Silverberg explored the Roman Empire surviving without Christian influence, in Roma Eterna, Harry Harrison’s Eden series in which the dinosaurs never became extinct, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, depicting a Europe in which the Black Death killed 99% of the population allowing Islam to dominate, and Stephen Baxter’s Anti-Ice, depicting an invention in Victorian England that changed the course of technological development.
Kim Stanley Robinson also explores the Many Worlds Interpretation on the individual in his latest work Galileo’s Dream. In the story, Galileo sees and feels himself burning at the stake in one of his potential lives and in another he survives.
An interesting story about the Many Worlds Interpretation and how it affects an ordinary person is a short story by Alastair Reynolds. In the story, Everlasting, a character claims that he will never die. His version is that we all live forever and that it is the people around us that die that there is always a place in the cosmos where we survive. It is a story that is complex and intriguing but most importantly immensely thought-provoking.
The end of the universe will be something that none of us will ever witness. It will also, in all probability, be a long drawn out event no matter which version turns out to be true. The idea of a multiverse that is garnering favour amongst cosmologists offers the most optimistic end of the universe, because there is truly no end. The end is only a far as our imagination will take us. The possibilities are indeed infinite.
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