Can You Survive the Heat Death of the Universe?


Image by Darren McManus, zeroDegreesArt

Environmentalists are known for taking the 'long term' view - our sons' sons' sons' well-being, that kind of thing. This was ok with me until I got strange-tangled up with a physicist, a non-water related one, who has a doctorate of the subject. And he got me thinking - long term view? Brother (actually, cousin), you don't know the meaning of the phrase. Have you given any thought to surviving the heat death of the universe?

Surviving the heat death of the universe is something that hadn't really occurred to me; I had been thinking of sustainability in more manageable terms, like not dumping paint down the toilet or refusing to wantonly spray DDT in schoolyards. But my time horizon was fairly short on these matters; getting a little more exotic life on earth, or for that matter anywhere, is probably not indefinitely sustainable in the form that we know it. And here's the problem.
The Long View on Sustainability
Taking a very long view, there's going to be some serious problems to combat in the eons ahead e.g. a direct hit by a meteor which happens (in the cosmic sense) all the time. Surprisingly, there has been some research done on this which has been encapsulated in the Kardashev Scale. The scale suggest that we will eventually need to harness most of the power of the sun (solar) or be 'sun-like' (fusion) to have the power necessary to avert these type of crises, either by blowing the meteor up ala Deep Impact of moving the planet out of the way.

Moving on, the sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years. Giant is the operative word here - the blazing ball is going to get really big and likely engulf the Earth. Defeatists might throw in the towel there but there are ways to survive this - moving to Mars, for example, or changing the Earth's orbit are pretty rosy options. Eventually though, the sun will run out of nuclear fuel and die altogether. And when the sun runs out of gas, this will be a more difficult problem.

Planetary End Game
One might ask the first logical question - will my Tivo still work after the sun dies? Well, it might, but you will have to find another solar system to enjoy the benefits of prerecorded TV. At this point, it's a toss-up between two likely end-states of the universe, both of which turn out be to not so are not people-friendly. The first is the heat death of the universe due to the second law of thermodynamics; hot flows to cold until the entire universe is just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Better bring your free-trade union suit. Alternatively, there's the Big Crunch where, the universe decides its done expanding and starts contracting majorly. Ouch, my head.

Current Implications on Energy and Culture
From this point of view, then, what does sustainability mean. In some sense, it suggests we should try and prevent us from dying out before we have a chance to understand more about Earth, the solar system, and the universe to (hopefully) avert extinction from things that we currently do not understand or control. What a beautiful idea; there a hint at the foundations of love there, also our duties, our responsibilities, even a pretty good sense of the right direction forward e.g. we can't avert a meteor hit with whirring wind farms, geothermal, coal, or gas; there's not enough energy in these fuels.

For me, I'm still an optimist - I actually hope that 'life' could in some weird way still go on, maybe through our thought or spirit forms which could take the cold or crush. Until then, keep trying to understand more about the Earth, its people and its rhythms. Galactically, you're on the right track.

Galactic Thoughts
Debating Mars Warming
Terraforming and Colonizing Mars
It's Raining Hydrocarbons on Saturn!!!

Tags: Life Cycle Analysis | One Planet Living

Best of TreeHugger 2014

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK