Cosmologist Katie Mack explains the leading theories — from heat death to the Big Crunch — on how the universe will cease to exist
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
—Robert Frost, 1920
The question of how the world will end has been the subject of speculation and debate among poets and philosophers throughout history. Of course, now, thanks to science, we know the answer: it’s fire. Definitely fire. In about 5 billion years, the Sun will swell to its red giant phase, engulf the orbit of Mercury and perhaps Venus, and leave the Earth a charred, lifeless, magma-covered rock. Even this sterile smoldering remnant is likely fated to eventually spiral into the Sun’s outer layers and disperse its atoms in the churning atmosphere of the dying star.
So: fire. That’s settled. Frost was right the first time.
But he wasn’t thinking big enough. I’m a cosmologist. I study the universe, as a whole, on the largest scales. From that perspective, the world is a small sentimental speck of dust lost in a vast and varied universe. What matters to me, professionally and personally, is a bigger question: How will the universe end?
We know it had a beginning. 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.
But what’s next? What happens at the end of the story? The death of a planet, or even a star, might in principle be survivable. In billions of years, humanity could still conceivably exist, in some perhaps-unrecognizable form, venturing out to distant reaches of space, finding new homes, and building new civilizations. The death of the universe, though, is final. What does it mean for us, for everything, if it will all eventually come to an end?
Over the millennia since humanity’s first ponderings of its mortality, the philosophical implications of the question haven’t changed, but the tools we have to answer it have. Today, the question of the future and ultimate fate of all reality is a solidly scientific one, with the answer tantalizingly within reach. It hasn’t always been so. In Robert Frost’s time, debates still raged in astronomy about whether the universe might be in a steady state, existing unchanging forever. It was an appealing idea, that our cosmic home might be a stable, hospitable one: A safe place in which to grow old. The discovery of the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, however, ruled that out. Our universe is changing, and we’ve only just begun to develop the theories and observations to understand exactly how. The developments of the last few years, and even months, are finally allowing us to paint a picture of the far future of the cosmos.
The best measurements we have are only consistent with a handful of final apocalyptic scenarios, some of which may be confirmed or ruled out by observations we’re making right now. Exploring these possibilities gives us a glimpse of the workings of science at the cutting edge, and allows us to see humanity in a new context. One which, in my opinion, can bring a kind of joy even in the face of total destruction. We are a species poised between an awareness of our ultimate insignificance and an ability to reach far beyond our mundane lives, into the void, to solve the most fundamental mysteries of the cosmos.
To adapt a line from Tolstoy, every happy universe is the same; every unhappy universe is unhappy in its own way. Small tweaks to our current, incomplete, knowledge of the cosmos can result in vastly different paths into the future, from a universe that collapses on itself, to one that rips itself apart, to one that succumbs by degrees to an inescapable expanding bubble of doom.
There’s something about taking the opportunity to wade into that cosmic perspective that is both terrifying and hopeful, like holding a newborn infant and feeling the delicate balance of the tenuousness of life and the potential for not-yet-imagined greatness. It is said that astronauts returning from space carry with them a changed perspective on the world, the “overview effect,” in which, having seen the Earth from above, they can fully perceive how fragile our little oasis is and how unified we ought to be as a species, as perhaps the only thinking beings in the cosmos.
For me, thinking about the ultimate destruction of the universe is just such an experience. There’s an intellectual luxury in being able to ponder the farthest reaches of deep time, and in having the tools to speak about it coherently. When we ask the question, “can this all really go on forever?” we are implicitly validating our own existence, extending it indefinitely into the future, taking stock, and examining our legacy. Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day-to-day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.
We’re definitely getting closer to an answer. Whether or not the world is falling apart from a political perspective, scientifically we are living in a golden age. In physics, recent discoveries and new technological and theoretical tools are allowing us to make leaps that were previously impossible. We’ve been refining our understanding of the beginning of the universe for decades, but the scientific exploration of how the universe might end is just now undergoing its renaissance. Hot-off-the-presses results from powerful telescopes and particle colliders have suggested exciting (if terrifying) new possibilities and changed our perspective on what is likely, or not, in the far future evolution of the cosmos. This is a field in which incredible progress is being made, giving us the opportunity to stand at the very edge of the abyss and peer into the ultimate darkness. Except, you know, quantifiably.
As a discipline within physics, the study of cosmology isn’t really about finding meaning per se, but it is about uncovering fundamental truths. By precisely measuring the shape of the universe, the distribution of matter and energy within it, and the forces that govern its evolution, we find hints about the deeper structure of reality. We might tend to associate leaps forward in physics with experiments in laboratories, but much of what we know about the fundamental laws governing the natural world comes not from the experiments themselves, but from understanding their relationship to observations of the heavens. Determining the structure of the atom, for example, required physicists to connect the results of radioactivity experiments with the patterns of spectral lines in the light from the Sun. The Law of Universal Gravitation, developed by Newton, posited that the same force that makes a block slide down an inclined plane keeps the Moon and planets in their orbits. This led, ultimately, to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a spectacular reworking of gravity, whose validity was confirmed not by measurements on Earth, but by observations of Mercury’s orbital quirks and the apparent positions of stars during a total solar eclipse.
Today, we are finding that the particle physics models we’ve developed through decades of rigorous testing in the best Earthly laboratories are incomplete, and we’re getting these clues from the sky. Studying the motions and distributions of other galaxies — cosmic conglomerations like our own Milky Way that contain billions or trillions of stars — has pointed us to major gaps in our theories of particle physics. We don’t know yet what the solution will be, but it’s a safe bet that our explorations of the cosmos will play a role in sorting it out. Uniting cosmology and particle physics has already allowed us to measure the basic shape of spacetime, take an inventory of the components of reality, and peer back through time to an era before the existence of stars and galaxies in order to trace our origins, not just as living beings, but as matter itself.
Of course, it goes both ways. As much as modern cosmology informs our understanding of the very very small, particle theories and experiments can give us insight into the workings of the universe on the largest scales. This combination of a top-down and bottom-up approach ties into the essence of physics. As much as pop culture would have you believe that science is all about eureka moments and spectacular conceptual reversals, advances in our understanding come more often from taking existing theories, pushing them to the extremes, and watching where they break. When Newton was rolling balls down hills or watching the planets inch across the sky, he couldn’t possibly have guessed that we’d need a theory of gravity that could also cope with the warping of spacetime near the Sun, or the unimaginable gravitational forces inside black holes. He would never have dreamed that we’d someday hope to measure the effect of gravity on a single neutron.
Fortunately, the universe, being really very big, gives us a lot of extreme environments to observe. Even better, it gives us the ability to study the early universe, a time when the entire cosmos was an extreme environment.
These days, I’m pretty solidly a theorist. This means I don’t carry out observations or experiments or analyze data, though I do frequently make predictions for what future observations or experiments might see. I work mainly in an area physicists call phenomenology — the space between the development of new theories and the part where they’re actually tested. That is to say, I find creative new ways to connect the things the fundamental-theory people hypothesize about the structure of the universe with what the observational astronomers and experimental physicists hope to see in their data. It means I have to learn a lot about everything, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
There isn’t just one accepted answer to any of this — the question of the fate of all existence is still an open one, and an area of active research in which the conclusions we draw can change drastically in response to very small tweaks in our interpretations of the data. But there are at least five leading possibilities, based on their prominence in ongoing discussions among professional cosmologists.
Each scenario presents a very different style of apocalypse, with a different physical process governing it, but they all agree on one thing: There will be an end.
In all my readings, I have not yet found a serious suggestion in the current cosmological literature that the universe could persist, unchanged, forever. At the very least, there will be a transition that for all intents and purposes destroys everything, rendering the cosmos uninhabitable to any organized structure. For this purpose, I will call that an ending (with apologies to any temporarily sentient bursts of random quantum fluctuation that may be reading this). A few of the scenarios carry with them a hint of possibility that the cosmos might renew itself, or even repeat, in one way or another, but whether some tenuous memory of previous iterations can persist in any way is a matter of rather intense ongoing debate, as is whether or not anything like an escape from a cosmic apocalypse could in principle be possible. What seems most likely is that the end for our little island of existence known as the observable universe is, truly, the end.
There’s the Big Crunch — the spectacular collapse of the universe that would occur if our current cosmic expansion were to reverse course. Then come the dark-energy driven apocalypses, one in which the universe expands forever, slowly emptying and darkening, and one in which the universe literally rips itself apart. Next is vacuum decay, the spontaneous production of a quantum bubble of death that devours the cosmos. Finally, there’s the speculative territory of cyclic cosmology, including theories with extra dimensions of space, in which our cosmos might be obliterated by a collision with a parallel universe… over and over again.
What that means for us as human beings, living our little lives in all this inconsiderate vastness, is another question entirely. We don’t know yet whether the universe will end in fire, ice, or something altogether more outlandish. What we do know is that it’s an immense, beautiful, truly awesome place, and it’s well worth our time to go out of our way to explore it.
While we still can.
Listen to this post