Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pondering on Endings and the Future

Ever since I was a young child, I have occasionally thought about how amazing it is that it is now. What do I mean by that? Well, in the infinity past and infinity future of time, how great a coincidence that it is now, the short span of my years to be alive and think about it. Since all the infinite time past, back to the Big Bang and beyond (if time has meaning beyond that point), I was not here to think about anything. Soon, whether it is today or fifty years from now, the consciousness that is uniquely me, will once again be absent from this universe, unable to ponder anything at all. The infinitesimal period of time where I lived will have passed, and this universe will continue on without me, my atoms no longer a part of the being that today is me.

Not only do individual people die, but everything comes to an end. Nothing, it seems, is forever. Not even diamonds, despite their advertising slogans. It has been said that if the universe since the Big Bang were compressed to a single 24-hour day, humanity's entire existence has only taken place in the last 30 seconds before midnight. Stars, planets (the Earth included), political entities (such as the United States), mountains, continents, and even our own Milky Way Galaxy, are temporal things that will eventually pass from existence. Our neighbor in intergalactic space, the great galaxy in Andromeda, is heading toward the Milky Way, the two pulled together toward a future collision on a cosmic scale, while the greater universe is ever expanding.

The most recent issue of Scientific American has a very interesting article, stating that we currently live in a time where discovery of the expanding universe is possible, but in the future, it would not be. At some point in time, the recession of distant galaxies will render them so distant that none would be visible if the Earth were still here. Only stars in our own merged supergalaxy, would fill the sky. Even that is not a permanent situation, as the universe depletes itself of fuel for new stars and eventually they all twinkle out into black holes or dark matter. Long before our universe dies, the earth's living heart, the geothermal engine inside the planet, will cool down, leaving a waterless ball of rock, much like Mars, and eventually being consumed by our sun as its own death throes expand it beyond the orbit of the world we call home.

The late Dr. Carl Sagan said we are made of "star stuff", the heavy elements in our bodies forged in long dead stars and expelled across the universe to give rise to new stars and planets. As such, we are a way the universe observes and tries to understand itself. We don't know, and may never know, if we are alone in the vastness of space, or if other sentient beings and other civilizations have arisen across the cosmos. But we do know it will all have an end someday, with our without our continued existence.

I don't hold a lot of hope for our species surviving its own self-destruction. The Earth was fine without human beings, and it could easily carry on without us again. I saw a program on The History Channel this week, titled Life After People, demonstrating that if all human beings on the planet were to disappear, just how quickly all evidence of our existence would be wiped away. Everything from our great cities and skyscrapers, to our highway infrastructure, to our greatest engineering marvels would all be gone in a fairly short period of time, returning the planet to its pre-mankind state of nighttime darkness and pristine environment. It was a look at a possible future I hope doesn't happen. Regardless, eventually it will all be gone.

Does the temporal existence deprive all meaning from life? Absolutely not! In fact, it makes it of even greater value. Things that are in infinite supply are not highly valued. It is the things that are rare that have the greatest intrinsic value attached to them. Every day of life, every bird singing, every mountain or cloud that we see, every moment is an opportunity to experience something that may not exist anywhere else, and may never again. Once I am gone, it will not matter to me anymore, but for today, I am happy to be here to observe and contemplate this amazing universe and this wonderful planet Earth.

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