Monday Motivation: Whistling in the dark
Let’s have a little fun today considering the fate of the universe and all who sail in her.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of what we understand the universe to be. Latest estimates suggest there are somewhere between 100 and 200 billion galaxies. In a typical galaxy there are between hundreds of billions and trillions of stars.
Right, that’s the context of our discussion. Our star – the sun – is an average sized star about mid-way through its active and productive life. It’s been around for about five billion years. The universe itself is something over thirteen billion years old.
My question, class, today, is: what does the future hold for us here on Earth? In the short term, we’re looking good, despite global warming, and the occasional cataclysmic meteorite strike which, as we now know, from time to time kills most life on the planet.
But it’s the medium term future that I’m thinking about. Over the span of billions of years? To answer that question, we have to consider the cosmos’s most abaundant gas: hydrogen. You’re aware, I’m sure, that hydrogen is the element that fuels the sun’s fusion reactions, which turn it into helium and produce vast amounts of heat and light – the heat and light that has made life possible on Earth. The supply of hydrogen, although large, is not infinite. The sun converts it into helium at a rate of 620 million tons every second.
In five billion years, however, the sun will run out of hydrogen and begin, paradoxically, to swell. Over the next several hundred million years, the sun will expand until its outer fringes envelope and destroy the Earth.
Over a much larger span of time – trillions of years – stars throughout the universe will run out of fuel, will cool and eventually, like so many guttering candles in a chandelier, simply go out.
It’s a fate that scientists have called the heat death of the universe.
Right. Even though you and I and the thousands of generations of our descendants, will long before have shuffled off this mortal coil, this prospect is not a happy one.
So what can we erect in the face of universal extinction?
I say there’s only one remedy – but it’s a remedy that fortunately we all possess.
With words we can capture the ephemeral beauty of a swift in flight, the shimmer of wind on water, the tremors that love engenders in the human heart.
We can construct imaginary worlds that are not subject to the debilitating effects of entropy. We can create immortal characters impervious to the winds of time. And we can weave tales that resist the equations of gloomy cosmologists.
So let’s use this power to celebrate life whatever the future, near or far, holds for us.