Sunburn

Some things pass from existence with a gentle flutter, hardly noticed. Their sudden absence does not change the fundamental workings of our earth. Our planet is good at keeping going. It has been blasted by asteroids, choked by super volcanoes, frozen beneath sheets of ice, and yet when faced with disaster, it has proven resilient enough to wipe the slate clean and start over, to rise from the ashes of calamity.

The earth is not a never-changing rock, a timeless blue dot. It is not a permanent feature in the universe, and nor is it our species’ eternal refuge. Even if we survive our own appetite for self-destruction and earths fraught journey through the cosmos, there is one conclusion this world cannot escape.

The sun is getting brighter. You won’t notice it, and neither will your children. Or your grandchildren. Or your great-grandchildren. It might be tempting to disregard the sun’s demise as an irrelevance; in many ways it is, at least to us personally. We won’t be the last to experience a perfect day on our home world, the last to watch flakes of snow melt on our outstretched hands. We are not going to be witnesses to a celestial murder.

Yet what we will lose, what every person who ever has lived will lose, is our home. The home of our friends and family; the home of Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Galileo, Shakespeare. The long-away destruction of our home matters because our home is our self. Everything we have ever done as a species has been acted out on the stage that is planet earth. Every memory ever made has its setting on this world or close by it. Whilst, in the future, mankind may reach out for other planets, other stars, and there make new memories, they will be disconnected from us today. Alien. Our anchor is set on planet earth, and the chain stretches back all the way to its genesis.

We will not face the Armageddon of the sun’s death throes. We will never see the sun shine bright enough to overwhelm every photosynthesising plant. The oceans won’t boil before our eyes, and we will never lose sight of the stars behind thick, burning clouds. No one will stand on the new Venus to watch in awe as the sun swells an angry red, devouring the whole horizon each time it rises. If any humans are still around in the solar system, they will have to view from afar as the bleeding sun pulses off its vendetta into space, and shrinks into a cold, white speck.

When astronomers recently discovered a white dwarf star – similar to what our sun will become in billions of years’ time – they found traces of oxygen in a circumstellar disk orbiting it. They came to the conclusion that an asteroid had once orbited GD61 which contained a large amount of water; maybe it was a small part of a larger world broken up during the cataclysmic death of its sun; a living world. Perhaps one day someone will see the white light of our frozen star, find traces of oxygen and conclude that it too might once have supported a world with water, which may have plausibly housed life. That will be our world’s legacy. Our legacy. Words printed on a gravestone for others to read.

 

 

 

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Eternal End

The End.

It seems a good way to start a blog. The end tells us a lot. It signals that something is over, has ceased to be. It underlines and crosses it off. Finished. Done. Move on.

The end also reflects upon what has been, since it is a deliberate statement of conclusion. Something has gone before, be it a book or a life, and now it is no more. It has said what it wanted to, or was given time to say; its personal dialogue has been silenced. It can be talked about and discussed by others who are still scrolling through the previous pages, but they will all, eventually, turn the final page and see a blank white sheet with ‘the end’ stamped on it in bold, indomitable letters. For in the end, there is always an end. It will triumph, because nothing is infinite. There is no forever in this universe.

All things come to an end. That’s not to say all things die, since the vast majority of everything was not alive in the first place. A rock cannot die, so to say that the universe will die is to anthropomorphise it, to transform it into some greater presence; a godly collection of gasses and darkness. So the Universe will end, many trillions of years from now, as the cosmos expands and cools, the last dwarf stars having burnt what remained of their dwindling fuel and a perpetual blackness descending upon an already bleak and lifeless chasm, clouded with the ashes of stars. It will take trillions of more years until everything cools to the same freezing temperature, and then the universe will fall still. Nothing will ever happen again.

Or will it end earlier? Is the end the death of life or the death of ‘things?’ What is the universe when it’s not interpreted by curious life forms, be they humans or whatever else is undoubtedly out there in the vast complexity of the universe? We are the universe’s eyes and ears; it cannot rationalise or interpret itself. Without life, the universe will not exist. Not in any meaningful way. Something vast and magnificent, yet senseless and unknown. Like a great work of art displayed in a black pit; it may as well be a crayon sketch. It takes humanity to flash a light on it, to give it meaning. We view the universe from the inside as separate beings, and yet are dependent on it for everything. All we are and all we have are gifts from the cosmos. It is us, and we are it. Inseparable.

So the Universe will end, will cease to be interpreted. We are merely a by-product of a series of events which have been in motion for 13.75 billion years, events that will continue to evolve until they end. There will then simply be an absence. A void. The blank space after the end. Something I’m not sure it’s even possible for us to comprehend.

Donnia Italia, a freed slave who died at a time when Helios was thought to drive the sun across the sky with his chariot, had an epitaph inscribed on her tomb by her former masters. ‘I was not, I was, I am not…’1

We, life, will one day not be. And that is when the universe will truly end.

1Hope V.M. (ed.) (2007) Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook, Abingdon, Routledge