Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The End of the World-The fate of the Universe

The End of the World

Remember the young Woody Allen's cosmic angst in the film Annie Hall? Having just read that the universe is expanding, the boy is so worried that he can't do his homework. "Someday it will break apart," he tells his shrink, "and that will be the end of everything." But, his mother snaps, "you're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

Maybe not, but Woody was on to something. Long before the universe finally fades out, his nightmare will come true—though not as he imagined. Now about halfway through its estimated 10 billion-year lifetime, our sun is slowly brightening. In about 1 billion years, its energy output will have increased at least 10%, turning Earth into a Venusian hothouse where plants wither, carbon dioxide levels plummet and the oceans boil off.

Even so, we would still have to quit the sun's neighborhood before it begins its final death throes. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, the fiery orb will collapse upon itself like a giant souffl├ę, only to see its internal furnace briefly restoked in several last gasps. These will swell the sun's outer layers so they engulf all the inner planets, including Earth, turning it into what astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson calls "a red-hot charred ember." The sun's red-giant phase will be brief, however. Shedding its heat and gases, it will become a cold, compact cadaver no bigger than Earth, a white dwarf lost in space.

Let's assume that humans—or some higher life-form—are still around to witness these cataclysms—an iffy supposition since we've been on Earth for only a fraction of the dinosaurs' time (2.5 million vs. 160 million years) yet already have the power to destroy ourselves. If we're still around, we will have to seek out homes on other planets orbiting other warming stars. That will take some giant leaps. Even the speediest galactic ark would have to travel hundreds of years, during which multiple generations would live and die on board, before reaching even a nearby star like Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light-years away. And in the end, not even such a sanctuary would save our descendants, or any other life-forms still inhabiting the universe, from its last, dying gasp.



That means that the 100 billion or so galaxies we can now see though our telescopes will zip out of range, one by one. Tens of billions of years from now, the Milky Way will be the only galaxy we're directly aware of (other nearby galaxies, including the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Andromeda galaxy, will have drifted into, and merged with, the Milky Way).

By then the sun will have shrunk to a white dwarf, giving little light and even less heat to whatever is left of Earth, and entered a long, lingering death that could last 100 trillion years—or a thousand times longer than the cosmos has existed to date. The same will happen to most other stars, although a few will end their lives as blazing supernovas. Finally, though, all that will be left in the cosmos will be black holes, the burnt-out cinders of stars and the dead husks of planets. The universe will be cold and black.

But that's not the end, according to University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams. An expert on the fate of the cosmos and co-author with Greg Laughlin of The Five Ages of the Universe (Touchstone Books; 2000), Adams predicts that all this dead matter will eventually collapse into black holes. By the time the universe is 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years old, the black holes themselves will disintegrate into stray particles, which will bind loosely to form individual "atoms" larger than the size of today's universe. Eventually, even these will decay, leaving a featureless, infinitely large void.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ernest Becker & The Denial of Death

The human ability to give meaning to colors, flags, stories, and symbols has often led to two or more movements to battle in a bloody conflict for hegemony. Becker wrote,
"The last thing man can admit to himself is that his life-ways are arbitrary: this is one of the reasons that people often show derisive glee and scorn over the strange customs of other lands—it is a defense against the awareness that his own way of life may be just as fundamentally contrived as any other. One culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically without a value framework totally alien to ones own."

The transference of life and meaning to objects and symbols is a human trait that makes conflict more probable. It is no longer a piece of land, cloth, stone or building but my very life and existence. Two heroic systems that are born from this escape from oblivion and this will to significance, cannot stand to co-exist with one another because their mere existence points to the fallacy of their absolute superiority. Thus genocide is even justified--kill the people to keep the ideology alive. Humans have often sacrificed real life for imaginary life. Becker quotes Jose Ortega Gasset,
"Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it up with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ideas are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality."

Everything is clear in the symbolic realm. In the symbolic arena there are no Tsunamis, earthquakes, oblivion, disease, and death. There is immortality in the symbolic arena and everlasting fame. We humans have given meaning to a world that has not given a second thought to whether an earthquake kills a cat, dog, cockroach or human. Becker noted,
"In the world of ritual there arent any accidents, and accidents, as we know, are the things that make life most precarious and meaninglessif life can be so subject to chance, it mustnt have too much meaning."
Despite human narcissism it is clear that whether a chicken gets its head chopped off or a human the world does not miss a beat. This knowledge leads one to the edge of the abyss of nihilism.
Camus reacted to the indifference of the universe with a euphoric pathos that reminds one of what Becker would state as agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same. Brush your teeth, feed your stomach, go to sleep, go Humans have an amazing organ called the brain with a base organ called the stomach. Our religions, arts, and culture are maybe just grand diversions from the reality of death? The legal definition of insanity is defined as a disassociation from reality. Is culture and society an insane reaction to a ridiculous position? To keep sane we become insane? Becker writes,
Existence is simply too much of a burden; object-embeddedness and bodily decay are universally the fate of men. Without some kind of ideology of justification people naturally bog down and fail.
Or as Freud would put it they demand illusions and constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.
Becker makes an important point about the limitations of the enlightenment and modernity. He states,
Modern man is the victim of his own disillusionment; he has been disinherited by his own analytic strength.

Professor Michael Polanyi wrote,
"The meanings—the coherent entities—which we know as Michelangelos Moses, Beethovens ninth Symphony, the virtue of justice, and the Christian God are not only intangibles.they seem, possibly, to have no existence or being at all in the absence of manthey may appear to be great and worthy of respect. But what if we suppose they are only adventitious results of lower motivations or, eventually, of the reactions of atoms?"