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Casey DreierJanuary 21, 2014

Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 10: The Edge of Forever

In which we contemplate the end of all things

Cosmos with Cosmos is a weekly series that encourages people to get together and watch Cosmos with a cosmo(politan) or drink of your choice. We're posting weekly episode recaps and discussion through February of 2014. This series is made possible by members of the Planetary Society. If you like what you're reading, please consider joining the Society or donating $10 to help support projects like this in the future. To learn more about this series and find out how to watch Cosmos, see our introduction.

« Episode 9: The Lives of the Stars

Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory »

"The great tragedy of Science," said Thomas Huxley, is "the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." And while I wouldn't call the facts in this case ugly, many beautiful hypotheses in this episode of Cosmos lay strewn upon the field, unmoving.

Episode 10 of Cosmos, The Edge of Forever, expands its view to the vast structures of the galaxies, building nicely from our previous episode, "The Lives of the Stars." It also addresses the Big Questions of the cosmos: "where does it all come from?" and "where is it all going?". The episode features several poetic and haunting hypotheses regarding both, but suffers from the astonishing scientific progress in cosmology over the intervening 30 years. Most of these hypotheses turned out to be wrong, or at least irrelevant.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos Update at the end of the special edition DVD acknowledges this, though the Update itself suffers from the same problem, having been recorded in the comparatively primeval period of cosmological understanding that was 1990. Two major events occurred which revolutionized (not too strong a word, I think) the field of cosmology since then: NASA's WMAP spacecraft and the discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating and the implication of the dark energy driving it.

WMAP measured the cosmic microwave background radiation in unprecedented detail. Careful analysis of these data led astrophysicists to the conclusion that the universe's overall geometry is flat. This implies an open cosmos (i.e. infinite), not closed, so goodbye to the hypotheses that we're living inside of a black hole or a subatomic particle in some larger universe.

The existence of Dark Energy—whatever it is—rules out a big crunch; there is not enough mass to stop the expansion of the universe. There is no Hindu-like cycle of cosmic death and rebirth. Our eventual fate is the proverbial whimpering out of existence; a frigid, featureless darkness awaits us at the end of all things.

Don't believe me? Ask Dr. Brian Cox:

From the BBC show, Wonders of the Universe.

I've been stewing on this for the past few days (as well as catching up cosmology, which I haven't studied since college), and I have to admit, I found the idea difficult to accept. Not that I disbelieve it, but the implications are quite dreary. If you are already concerned with meaning behind everyday life, do not read up on cosmology.

The heat death of the universe, if you didn't watch the video above, says that as the universe expands over great amounts of time, matter will either recede into the distance or coalesce into and collapse into black holes; the stars that escape this fate will die and slowly radiate their residual heat until they become black dwarfs. The density of matter in the universe will become too low to create new stars. Over many, many, many trillions of years, the black holes evaporate and the black dwarfs flake away. Time essentially comes to a stop as the universe approaches maximum entropy; the universe ends its days as a featureless soup of low-energy photons and fundamental particles.

This is a somewhat more depressing outcome than Sagan hoped for, given the focus of this episode on a cycling cosmos. This presents a problem. How do we reconcile our place in a cosmos in which the very presence of matter is a blip in its otherwise static existence?

This is where philosophy takes over, though I personally find the idea liberating in a strange sense. If even the achievements of Newton or Mozart and even the possibility of intelligent life will cease to exist, it's probably ok to relax and enjoy the brief life I have. At least that's what I tell myself.

An Echo of the Big Bang

ESA and the Planck Collaboration - D. Ducros

An Echo of the Big Bang
The anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) as observed by Planck. The CMB is a snapshot of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380 000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today.

Now Sagan was an optimist about all things, from the existence of extraterrestrials to the fate of humanity, and he held a deep conviction in the power of self-aware beings to determine their own fates. How would he have reacted to the heat death scenario?

We don't have to wonder. Sagan directly addresses this in his novel Contact, written about a decade after Cosmos. In a conversation between the main character, Ellie Arroway, and her (spoiler!) alien host, Ellie learns that Cygnus A, one of the brightest radio sources in the sky, is a vast, extragalactic engineering project:

  "There are lots of cooperative projects between galaxies?" she asked. "Lots of galaxies, each with a kind of Central Administration? With hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy. And then those administrations cooperate. To pour millions of suns into Centaurus...sorry, Cygnus A? The...Forgive me, I'm just staggered by the scale. Why would you do all of this? Whatever for?"

  "You mustn't think of the universe as a wilderness. It hasn't been that for billions of years," he said. "Think of it more as...cultivated."

  Again a tingling.

  "But what for? What's there to cultivate?"

  "The basic problem is easily stated. Now don't get scared off by the scale. You're an astronomer, after all. The problem is that the universe is expanding, and there's not enough matter in it to stop the expansion. After a while, no new galaxies, no new stars, no new planets, no newly arisen lifeforms—just the same old crowd. Everything's getting run-down. It'll be boring. So in Cygnus A we're testing out the technology to make something new. You might call it an experiment in urban renewal. It's not our only trial run. Sometime later we might want to close off a piece of the universe and prevent space from getting more and more empty as the aeons pass. Increasing the local matter density's the way to do it, of course."

Is this not the ultimate optimism? Sagan reminded us that trillions of years is a long time to figure things out. And when we face the end of the universe, we can treat it as a problem to be solved, not a fate to endure. Optimism was one of Sagan's gifts to the world. It was sorely needed during the cold war, and it is just as necessary today. Science and technology gives us more than apps and Facebook and 140 characters. It gives us hope within an indifferent universe, a chance to alter our own destiny.

As I've been pondering the birth and death of the cosmos this week, another thought struck me: how many TV shows force you to contemplate the end of all things? Or even the beginning? Most apocalyptic shows tend to focus on the collapse of civilization on Earth. You have a few, like Battlestar Galactica, that deal with the death of a world, but none, save a few science shows, that focus your thoughts on the great birth and death of our physical reality. And even though this episode of Cosmos was more dated more than most, it stirs the soul like very few other hours of television can. It makes you question and ponder, grieve and hope, and helps you stand on the edge of forever without falling in yourself.

Stray Observations

Science Updates


« Episode 9: The Lives of the Stars

Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory »

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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