Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
– Robert Frost
So goes the epigraph of Katie Mack‘s excellent new cosmology book, The End Of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). It is an entertaining and curiously enlightening read about how the universe might end. At 240 pages, it’s a quick and accessible read that somehow manages to cover a great deal of ground. Among its topics:
- What might the universe be?
- Where might it have come from?
- What the heck happened during those first fractions of a second?
- How might the universe end?
- Where do universes go when they die?
These first three points are critical to understanding the rest, and Mack, a theoretical cosmologist and science communicator, does an excellent job explaining them. But she spends most of the book drilling down into these last points. She discusses, among other things, the big crunch, heat death, the big rip, bouncing ‘branes, vacuum decay, and life after (heat) death.
I’d always found heat death–the irreversible transformation of all things into tepid soup–to be deeply depressing. Entropy, an unstoppable juggernaut that slowly makes things less organized, will simply have its way with everything. But the things I read in this book really made me reconsider that.
First, heat death is far from guaranteed. The big crunch–a reversal of cosmic expansion–was assumed to be the fate of the universe until George W. Bush was president. Who’s to say this won’t change again? Is another shift in thinking in fact inevitable?
Second, even if the universe’s final form is a uniform just-above-absolute-zero puddle, there’s no reason to believe this is its truly final form. Random quantum fluctuations can theoretically produce any arrangement of particles. At infinite time horizons, one could argue that these fluctuations will produce any arrangement of particles. Including a very temporary consciousness that believes itself to be a human reading this blog post on the Internet. Or a singularity… and we know where those can lead.
Even freaky apocalypse scenarios like vacuum decay, where a change in the Higgs field suddenly creates a bubble of quantum annihilation that spreads inexorably outward at the speed of light, don’t sound so bad in Mack’s telling: there’s plenty of universe out there that’s traveling away from us even faster. In fact, for all we know, this has already happened a bunch of different places. And, at the end of the day, it would be a painless way to go, and literally impossible to see coming.
So, if you’re in the mood for some surprisingly uplifting eschatology, why not pick up a copy? I got mine from the library, but if you’re looking to buy, this Amazon affiliate link will send some scratch to the blog.
What have you been reading lately?