What Is the Far Far Future of the Universe?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer To Truth:

When we speak of people’s future, we mean after college, the next election, their career, their retirement. When we speak of the universe’s future, we mean when the sun burns out, when galaxies collide, when everything flies apart, when all that exists evaporates.
The untold billions and trillions of years, you say, make it all irrelevant. Not so. The far far future of the universe conveys great meaning now.
Sir Martin Rees, the United Kingdom’s astronomer royal, explains that “our sun will run out of fuel after 5 or 6 billion years; it will swell and become a red giant, engulfing the inner planets, vaporizing any life remaining on earth. It will then settle down as a white dwarf to a quiet death. But any creatures who witness the death of the sun will be as different from us as we are from bacteria.”
He says, “The end of the earth won’t be the end of the universe of course. Many stars will go on shining for much longer. But the galaxy will eventually get much dimmer because eventually all stars will die and all that will remain will be the dead remnants of stars. The universe will also become a much emptier place because other galaxies which are accelerating away from us with the expanding universe will disappear beyond our observational horizons. So if you were an astronomer in, say, 100 billion years from now, the only thing you would see would be the remnants of our galaxy, Andromeda, and a few other neighbors. All the rest would have disappeared completely beyond your horizon.”
Rees goes on: “On longer time scales, even atoms don’t live forever. We suspect that the individual atoms that compose the stars will gradually erode away, in probably 1,035 years or so. Black holes themselves don’t live forever: They evaporate by a very slim process, so that after 10,100 years, even the biggest black holes probably won’t exist anymore. And so after that time, all that is left is a universe that is filled with very, very dilute radiation, and maybe some stable particles that make up the dark matter. That will be all there is.”
To him, “That’s the simplest story, but it could be wrong for many, many reasons of course. One possibility is that the force which drives the accelerating expansion may be more complicated than we think. It may change. But the current forecast does seem to be for an ever colder, ever emptier universe. To paraphrase Woody Allen, ‘Eternity is very long, especially toward the end.’”
But, Rees adds, “this end could lead to a new beginning. Some speculate that the end of our universe could in some sense be linked to the beginning of a new universe.”
Going further, could radically advanced intelligences, biological or nonbiological, be able to alter space and time in the far far future and thus prevent the ultimate dissolution?
“Science fiction writers can conceive of it and that’s all we can hope for,” Rees muses. “It would have been almost impossible for people 1,000 years ago to conceive of the present concept of the universe—and we’re now talking not about thousands of years, but about billions of years. So when we imagine what might happen in the very long future, we can’t do better than the science fiction writers.”
So the sun exhausts its fuel, galaxies fade away. All, eventually, is gone. The universe dissipates after trillions of years, and I feel empty now. Alone. Cold.
Why? An existential vacuum of meaning and purpose? A brutal confrontation with indifferent reality?
That human beings, so terribly limited by space and time, can conceive of the universe in the far far future by measuring its expansion today is astonishing!
Astronomer Wendy Freedman, who determined the rate of universal expansion (with the Hubble Space Telescope), says, “The expansion of the universe is actually speeding up; it’s accelerating over time. We’ve made measurements that show that very bright objects, supernovae, are farther away than we would have expected if the universe were slowing down.”
This means, she continues, that we’re living at a unique time when we can see many galaxies in the universe that will eventually go beyond our visible light horizons, so that the universe will appear to get emptier and emptier with time. But, she adds, “I don’t think we can predict with confidence because we don’t know the properties of this so-called ‘dark energy.’”
So is our time really special? With innumerable galaxies within sphere of view? With understanding cosmic expansion? We’re heading, inexorably, to the far future.
But what’s the next big event? Over the horizon, what’s coming?
Avi Loeb, an expert on galactic structures, tells of a galactic collision with our closest cousin galaxy, Andromeda. “Andromeda is approaching us right now,” he says. “Within 2 billion years, the two galaxies will come very close to each other. There is some chance that the sun will be stolen by Andromeda so that, subsequently, we would see the Milky Way as an external galaxy. A couple of billion years later, Andromeda will return again. Eventually, the two galaxies will mix. [There is so much space in galaxies that the likelihood of stars actually crashing into one another, even when galaxies collide, is very small.] Tens of billions of years from now, there will be no other object in the sky for us to observe. There will be just this merged product of our Milky Way and Andromeda.”
Don’t let the flowery words lull you. The far far future is utterly bleak. But guess what? Our future could be bleaker still!
Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, who has proposed how the universe might have begun from literally nothing (through “quantum tunneling”), also thinks that the ultimate end of our universe might happen more swiftly.
“The very end is going to be somewhat different,” he says casually. “The reason we have now this accelerated expansion is because our vacuum has nonzero energy and the energy of the vacuum creates repulsive gravity and the universe expands with acceleration. The cosmology now suggests the picture of a multiverse, which suggests that in addition to our region, there are other regions where the vacuum energy has different values. What’s important for our discussion here is not the existence of those other regions, but the possibility for a vacuum to have different energies; in physics, when there is a possibility to lower the energy, this happens sooner or later, in one way or the other. The way this is likely to happen is that a tiny bubble of negative energy vacuum will pop out somewhere in space, just like a bubble of vapor pops out in boiling water. And this bubble will start to expand, accelerating in its expansion so that it will approach the speed of light. The interior of that bubble will collapse to a big crunch. This bubble eats everything in its way, consumes everything and grows in power. In fact, the more it eats, the stronger it gets. We will be hit by that bubble and annihilated. Perhaps not us because we will be long gone; indeed, our sun will likely be dead by then. The probability for such bubbling nucleation is extremely small; there is nothing immediate to worry about. But at some point, this will be the end of our region, but it will not be the end of the entire universe.”
Even if every universe in an infinity of universes is hit by a bubble of its own making, the generation of multiple universes continues forever—and the generation wins. So there’s ultimate hope of a sort. Even though there’s certainty that each observable region will eventually get eaten, there is also certainty that many more will always exist.
Bleak. Bleaker. Bleakest. Pick your poison: That’s the scientific certainty. As of now, our universe is headed for oblivion—whether “freezing” through everlasting expansion or “frying” in a big crunch collapse. Unless, of course, there’s a radically different kind of future in store for us. A future conceived by hope, though ridiculed by science.
This is the uncharted territory of Robert John Russell, an ordained minister with a doctorate in physics, the founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. (I’d love to believe as Russell believes … if only my wishes had powers.)
“The heart of the message,” Russell says, “is that God’s creation isn’t complete—there’s death, disease, trauma, tragedy, sin. It must have a future in which those will be gone. That’s the hope shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that there really will be a future for all of earth and not just for humankind. The lion and the lamb lying down together; a true New Jerusalem.”
But even assuming God exists, how could God transform the world?
Russell starts by stating that “God is always involved in the world because God is the creator of the world.” He then explains that, “If God is acting in a regular way, we can predict the future on those actions, but if God chooses to act differently, God doesn’t violate the laws of nature, and the predictions of science aren’t wrong. It would just be a new ballgame: God acting in a new way. Now, for Christians like myself, the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the new creation. In Christ’s death and resurrection, death itself is died.”
How, then, does Russell generalize from his prototype to a creation of a new heavens and a new earth?
“It’s not a totally new creation,” he says. “It isn’t the second ex nihilo (out of nothing) creation. It’s a continuation of this world: After all, Jesus was Jesus. He could be recognized, he could be touched, he made breakfast; but he was also this transcend lord who is sort of beyond space and time, yet within it. So if that’s the future, and the future is sort of in the present, then this must mean that something about this universe will be continuous with the future universe. It’s not snatch and grab, it’s not walk off to heaven and forget the universe. God loves God’s creation, everything about it. It will be cherished forever in the new creation. So somehow, you deploy that. The transformation of the world involves both continuity and discontinuity. After Jesus was resurrected, he didn’t die again (like Lazarus)—that’s radical change, discontinuity. But Jesus was still Jesus—continuity.”
Russell extends his argument: “Now, if Jesus’ death and resurrection is real, and it relates for the future of the universe, then there must be parts of the universe now that will be continuous with the future universe, and there are parts that will be discontinuous. And this is where science might come in, to offer us clues as to what’s continuous—like true values, such as agape love or the Pythagorean theorem, or appreciating sexuality and earthiness. All these are grounded in God’s current creation and will exist in God’s new creation. But all things evil or tragic—suffering and disease, inhumanity, predator-prey cycles—all things that do not reflect God’s grace and goodness, these could not be in God’s new creation. All things good about this creation—the physicality we enjoy as real creatures, not as a trapped soul and not just as an animal—will continue over into the new creation.”
So, Russell concludes, “the universe itself has a destiny.”
“If you’re right,” I mutter, “I hope I get to see you there.”
“You will,” he assures me.
How much we know about the far far future! Observing in advance, as it were, billions and trillions of years to come. The likely scenario is that the universe will expand forever, stretched apart by an increasingly powerful dark energy, so that the ultimate future is random radiation, nothing more.
Yet the science is still young. But either way, freeze or fry—expand into frigid, infinite emptiness or collapse into the torrid singularity of a big crunch—the universe’s future seems bereft of joy and devoid of hope.
Religion offers alternatives. A great transformation. A new heavens and new earth.
I yearn to believe. But facts fight faith.
I turn again to Rees: “Science fiction writers are our best guide at the moment and, more generally, I would say that in discussing these issues, first-rate science fiction is a greater stimulus than second-rate science.”
No matter what, seeking the far far future brings us closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Sir Martin Rees, Wendy Freedman, Avi Loeb, Alexander Vilenkin, and Robert John Russell in “What Is the Far Far Future of the Universe?”—the 17th episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (56th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.

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2 Responses

  1. castel says:

    Basically, there are two conflicting perspectives regarding the far future.

    There is the popular perspective that says that the cosmos is expanding towards an increasing disorder, which is according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, such that the cosmos is disintegrating for an ever increasing chaos – which suggests that the far future is the cold and darkened demise into chaotic (disordered) existence. In this perspective religion (especially Christianity) is dead.

    There is also the unpopular perspective that says that the cosmos expands but with increasing order, with cosmic mass being continually ‘created’ by the relative acceleration imposed by gravitation, which is according to the formulated law that says that as masses accelerate their masses increase, such that the cosmos is ‘creating’ more mass for an ever increasing cosmos – which suggests that the far future is the ever-burning and glorious immortality of cosmic (ordered) existence. In this perspective religion (especially Christianity) is alive.

  2. As per formula of evolution; going to the last border/boundary of everything of creation, it would be felt nothing except touch of nature power. In the finalization of matter there is nothing but energy or ray, so we can take the decision that “Everything of the present universe is the result of evolution of single energy of Power”. In this way- again we can take the decision that “Beginning of the creation a part of the power of the nature became divisible as a result of the big bang”. Nature means many instances such as; Allah, God, Dark energy, Single dimension, Super power, Black body, Big or minimal black hole, A black hole, Primordial black hole, Borders on the spiritual, Ultimate reality, Huge reserve of the natural force, Primordial whole and eternity present, Absolute zero space-time and physics. & so on. See at http://t.co/OQDPbAg

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