Some really long term thinking

(Scientific Constraints on Eschatology)

The best scientific long-range forecast for the physical universe can be quickly summarized: Very, very dark. Very, very cold. Very, very lonely. The universe will expand forever. All baryonic (proton and neutron based) matter will decay. Nothing will be left but a cold thin soup of photons, electrons, positrons, neutrinos and a few exotic particles. Only the occasional quantum fluctuation will break up the boredom. The particles of the universe will tend to expand away from each other to the point where none can can interact with each other. It will be the very opposite of “everything connected”: Nothing will be connected.

The History of Pretty Much Everything gives more detail to the time when all the stars go out. The End of the Universe takes it even further. Katie Mack has written a great book about the subject, The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking).

The scientific basis for this seems quite clear.

  1. The Second Law of Thermodynamics

    About this Sir Arthur Eddington wrote.

    If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

  2. The law has been known since the mid-1800’s and its dysteleological consequence,”the heat death of the universe”, was quickly understood. James Clerk Maxwell, the greatest theoretical physicist between Newton and Einstein, wrote:

    Till in the twilight of the Gods,
    When earth and sun are frozen clods,
    When, all its energy degraded,
    Matter to ether shall have faded,
    We, that is, all the work we’ve done
    As waves in ether shall forever run
    In ever widening spheres through heavens beyond the sun.

    Barrow and Tipler give a good historical account of this in this (See section 3.7). Teilhard recognized that this was a big problem for his cosmology, but did not have an answer (See Barrow and Tipler, p. 168). Looking at it from a more traditional, though hardly fundamentalist, Christian viewpoint, W.R. Inge, the “gloomy Dean”(!), was not bothered:

    The idea of the end of the world is intolerable only to modernist philosophy, which finds in the idea of unending temporal progress a pitiful substitute for the blessed hope of everlasting life, and in an evolving God a shadowy ghost of the unchanging Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. It is this philosophy which makes Time itself an absolute value, and progress a cosmic principle. … Modernist philosophy is, as I maintain, wrecked on the Second Law of Thermodynamics; it is no wonder that it finds the situation intolerable, and wriggles piteously to escape from its toils.

    (William R. Inge, God and the Astronomers, Warburton lectures 1931-1933 (London, Longmans Green, 1934), quoted in Barrow and Tipler, p. 168

    Lucas Mix, in Entropy, recently wrote:

    The good news is that the whole physical world will pass away, but you, the very essence of you will not. The good news is that you have the ability to understand and work in a limited, and therefore precious, universe. We must not forget the story of death — it happens all the time, but even more importantly, we have a story of resurrection.

    which is perfectly consistent with Inge’s view.

  3. The Expanding Universe

    Again, this is nothing new, being stated by Hubble in 1929, using, in part, observations by Slipher going back to 1917. For a long time there was a question about whether the universe would expand forever, or if the expansion would eventually eventually slow, stop, and reverse, ending in a big crunch. The last chapter of Barrow and Tipler proposed a scenario where a big crunch could in some sense produce an Omega point, on an immensely larger scale than Teilhard ever thought (Since in the cosmological near term, the Sun will die, you have to think far beyond the Earth). They even suggested a mechanism for working around the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As an exercise in mathematical physics (How to have eternal life in a universe that ends in a finite time) it is kind of fun, but it has no emotional appeal. Tipler later went off the deep end with these ideas, but that is not really relevant here. What they did show is that a necessary condition for an Omega point the universe must be closed — end in a big crunch. This has a certain scientific appeal, since it it a falsifiable statement.

  4. Dark Energy

    If the universe is to end in a big crunch, then the Hubble expansion must be sufficiently slowed by gravitation to accomplish this eventually. However, as noted above (see Siegel and Baez) the expansion is actually accelerating. Not only are the galaxies moving away from each other, but as time passes they are moving away faster and faster. This was discovered in the late 1990’s, and has been repeatedly confirmed. The cause is still mysterious, but it is called dark energy. Something is powering that acceleration.

    It is interesting to note that the effect of dark energy is consistent with Einstein’s Cosmological Constant, which he introduced and soon repudiated, calling it the “greatest blunder” of his career. However, other physicists had picked it up and kept the concept alive. Calling it his “greatest blunder” may itself be considered a mistake by Einstein.

    The loophole suggested by Barrow and Tipler has now been closed. Teilhard’s Omega point is not only falsifiable, it has been falsified.

These issues are very well known to everybody with a serious interest in physics and astronomy. They have appeared frequently in science fiction (A nice short example is Deep). I don’t think the concepts are incompatible with religion. Certainly Inge and more recently John Polkinghorne have been able to work with them. The implications of the Second Law were quite well known in the 1930’s, and the subject of serious theological concern then. When I took Education for Ministry back in the 1980’s I was surprised and disappointed to find that most modern theology has largely ignored these and the other cosmological issues.