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Death of the universe…maybe

| Thursday, October 22, 2020

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

There are two possible ways the universe will end. 

A scary sentence, right? I haven’t even started to talk about the details yet, and the tone of this column is already pretty unnerving. The end of the universe. The expiration date of everything we know. Not exactly your typical water-cooler discussion topic. In fact, I highly recommend that you do not bring up the ever-approaching curtain call of the cosmos when you are trying to make a good first impression. Trust me, it does not go well.

Enough about me though. Let’s take a moment to talk about something a little more important: me. For real though, I want to cut through all the narcissism here to just put a big disclaimer that I am no cosmologist. I am, however, an avid Google-r who has taken one college astronomy course, so I am basically an expert.

Now, let’s establish one thing: The universe will end. Whether we like it or not, everything ends. The question is, how? The answer is simpler than you’d think.

Let’s start with one basic fact. The universe is constantly expanding. From here, we make it a logic problem. What happens next?

1. The universe will continue to expand forever.

2. The universe will eventually stop expanding and start contracting.

These seem to be the only two options. We keep moving or we turn around. One of these things has to happen. But what do these all mean? What are the consequences?

Well, let’s take a look behind door number one. Believe it or not (You should believe this — it’s science.), the expansion of the universe is constantly increasing the space between everything. As a kid, I always imagined the universe expanding as just the universe growing, as if it was constantly making more of itself. In actuality, it is almost better to imagine the universe stretching. As it continues to stretch, the things within it slowly get farther and farther apart from each other. If the universe continues to expand outwardly forever (also known as an “Open Universe”), then we will eventually reach a point where the space between every galaxy, every planet, every atom, is so great that all material objects will disintegrate into particles a la Thanos snap. There will be nothing left but empty space. 

Hm. OK, yeah, this one was pretty drastic. Let’s try the next one. 

One thing we have to remember is that the universe is basically playing a constant game of tug-of-war with itself. On one side is the constant expansion and the other is gravity. In our above example, expansion wins out, but what if it was the other way around? In this theory, gravity is our very own cosmic Rocky Balboa that overcomes the constant pull of the universe. Gravity overpowering this pull would stop the expansion of the universe and instantly begin a contraction — this is referred to as a “Closed Universe.” Every particle in the whole universe would be pulled in by gravity until it all collapses into a singular point — destroying everything.

(Note: There is another option in which something similar to a black hole appears and slowly but surely destroys the entirety of the universe. Cosmologists have named this “The Big Slurp,” so, quite frankly, I think it deserves no respect)

Well, I’m sad now. Are you? You may be asking yourself, “Why did you tell me this? I didn’t need this information. I won’t even be alive when this all happens. Why would you even bother to tell me?”

These are all good questions. You are correct. Everything I have described here today is incredibly sad. The end of the universe is quite literally the biggest loss that could ever happen. Everything to ever exist would be gone. There is, however, a silver lining to this story. 

There is a chance, just a chance, that, if gravity wins that ongoing tug-of-war — if that contraction of the universe begins, if every star, every planet, every world, every creature, every half eaten donut and empty coffee cup comes crashing into one single point with a power unlike any other — well, there is a chance that much matter in such a small space would create a singularity so dense it wouldn’t be able to contain itself. It would burst out in a glorious explosion of light and matter and energy. And maybe, billions and billions of years later, this matter would slowly start to form something like galaxies and stars and planets. And maybe these planets would find harmony with others, floating their way into a beautiful balance of gravity called orbit. And maybe one of these planets would find itself in such an orbit that it could support an entirely new creation: life. And maybe, just maybe, this life would grow and evolve. Maybe they would be wonderfully curious and observant and learn about the world around them. Maybe they would go on to explore the infinite amount of space surrounding them. Maybe they would call it a universe. Maybe one day they would find out about that huge cosmic explosion that started everything. Maybe they would call it the Big Bang.

Maybe one of them would go to attend something called college and take a class on something called astronomy and learn about that Big Bang. Maybe they would learn about the ways the universe might end. Maybe they would hear about this idea of the universe contracting so much that it would eventually explode into a new universe. And maybe they would cling onto that idea, keeping it in their heart. Because maybe it gives them hope. Hope that things will go on. Hope that things can be beautiful. Hope for this universe. Hope for the next one.

Maybe they hope you think so, too.

James Cullinane is a junior and can be contacted at [email protected]

Show Some Skin is a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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