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You're going to die. The Earth will, one day, be toast. So too, our Sun will eventually shine its last. But what's next?
The End of Everything is a unique exploration of the destruction of the cosmos. Drawing on cutting edge technology and theory, as well as hot-off-the-presses results from the most powerful telescopes and particle colliders, astrophysicist Katie Mack describes how small tweaks to our incomplete understanding of reality can result in starkly different futures. Our universe could collapse in upon itself, or rip itself apart, or even - in the next five minutes - succumb to an inescapable expanding bubble of doom.
This fascinating, witty story of cosmic escapism examines a beautiful but unfamiliar physics landscape while sharing the excitement a leading astrophysicist feels when thinking about the universe and our place in it. Amid stellar explosions and bouncing universes, Mack shows that even though we puny humans have no chance of changing how it all ends, we can at least begin to understand it.
226 pages, Kindle Edition
First published August 4, 2020
“Whether or not we subscribe to any particular religion or philosophy, it would be hard to deny that knowing our cosmic destiny must have some impact on how we think about our existence, or even how we live our lives. If we want to know whether what we do here ultimately matters, the first thing we ask is: how will it come out in the end? If we find the answer to that question, it leads immediately to the next: what does this mean for us now? Do we still have to take the trash out next Tuesday if the universe is going to die someday?”
“About 13.8 billion years ago, the universe went from a state of unimaginable density, to an all-encompassing cosmic fireball, to a cooling, humming fluid of matter and energy, which laid down the seeds for the stars and galaxies we see around us today. Planets formed, galaxies collided, light filled the cosmos. A rocky planet orbiting an ordinary star near the edge of a spiral galaxy developed life, computers, political science, and spindly bipedal mammals who read physics books for fun.”
¹ “In everyday life in the modern universe, each of the fundamental forces of nature has a distinct role. Gravity holds us to the ground, electricity keeps our lights on, magnetism holds our shopping list to the fridge, the weak nuclear force makes sure our backyard nuclear reactor keeps glowing a nice steady blue, and the strong nuclear force prevents our bodies’ protons and neutrons from decomposing into their component parts.”
² “It’s unlikely that a whale and a bowl of petunias could suddenly pop into existence in completely empty space, but, in principle, if you wait long enough, it could happen.”
³ “Our WHOLE universe was in a hot dense state, then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started…” Yes, the Barenaked Ladies got it right: the beginning of the theme song for the TV show The Big Bang Theory is actually a very good summary of the theory itself.”
⁴ “Quarks come in six different “flavors,” which have different masses and charges. The flavors are: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. They were named in the 1960s.”
⁵ The sheer abundance of footnotes reminded me of the one and only Sir Terry Pratchett. They are fun and distracting asides, and if that annoys you, you can choose to either stay away from this book or simply avoid reading those. Your loss.
“Anyway, in the core of a burned-out, collapsing star, there are so many atoms, pressed so tightly together, their electrons start to get antsy.”
“A white dwarf⁶ is a kind of star that isn’t burning at all. It has no fusion. It is a solid object held up entirely by the quantum mechanical principle that electrons just don’t like each other that much.”⁶“They’re “dwarfs,” not “dwarves,” for reasons that are not entirely clear.”
⁷ “At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will, more likely than not, fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all that we’ve done will be utterly forgotten. Where does that leave us now?”
“I’ve never understood why people get so depressed about the end, the death of the Sun and all,” he continues. “I just like the serenity of it.”
“So it doesn’t bother you that we ultimately have no legacy in the universe?” I ask him.
“No, not at all,” he says. “I very much like our blip-ness… It’s always appealed to me,” he continues. “It’s the transience of these things. It’s the doing. It’s the process. It’s the journey. Who cares where you get to, right?”
⁸ Those that someday will go supernova, of course.—————
It’s all that weird “phantom” dark energy, anyway.
The name “Heat Death” might sound like a misnomer for a state of the cosmos that is colder and darker than anything else in the history of creation. But in this case, the term “heat” is a technical physics term, not meaning “warmth,” but rather “disordered motion of particles or energy.” And it’s not the death of heat, but a death by heat. It’s the disorder in particular that kills us…entropy (90).If the universe is governed by dark energy in the form of a cosmological constant, then the future holds darkness, isolation, emptiness and decay. As you can see, this chapter introduces readers to the cosmological constant and dark energy, a real pain in the ass for basically all universe/space-related scientists: “dark energy ruins everything” (85).
“The first thing you need to know is that most of the subatomic particles you know and love—electrons, protons, neutrons, neutrinos, quarks—are fermions, which, in this context, means they are fiercely independent, in a particle physics kind of way. Specifically, they obey the Pauli exclusion principle, which says that they won’t abide being in the same place and the same energy state at the same time (121).Subatomic particles I know and love? I think she’s confused me with Sheldon Cooper, the theoretical physicist of The Big Bang Theory. Most of my familiarity with these subatomic particles comes from watching reruns of TBBT, a show I used to love until it got unbearable to watch. But when reading this book, I would come across familiar Sheldon terminology and exclaim, “ah ha! That’s what Sheldon was talking about!” Of course, I still have only the fuzziest idea of what Mackie (and Sheldon) are so excited about, but at least I’m trying.