Fire or Ice? Predictions for the End of the Universe
Philosopher Clement Vidal recently published a book called, "The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in Cosmological Perspective," in which he explores what he considers to be the two rising trends in the universe: disorder and complexity.
The rising trend of disorder is the better-explored theory of the end of the universe. Currently, our universe is governed by ordered and organized phenomena such as galaxies, planets, and star systems. But studies of thermodynamics over a century ago showed that the universe is headed towards complete disorder. The universe will slowly lose all of its energy, and therefore all of its structure. The stages in which this will occur are called Degenerate, Black Hole, and Dark. We are currently in the Stelliferous Era, in which the universe is organized into component parts. During the Degenerate Era, protons will begin to decay and the sole survivor of the process will be black holes. This will lead into the Black Hole era, in which the entire universe will be composed of black holes. Through quantum mechanical processes, the black holes will destroy all of the matter within them, and the only structures in existence will be extremely low-energy photons, electrons, positrons, and neutrinos.
Artistic rendering of the Black Hole Era:
The Dark Era, in which essentially nothing will be left in the universe, has been of the most interest to philosophers. In this era, virtually the entire universe will be uniform darkness, a discovery that prompted famous philosopher Bertrand Russell to lament, "All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction.... The whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins."
But the theory that has been given short shrift in popular consciousness, scientific literature, and philosophy is the trend of rising complexity. Where physics gives us a view of slow degeneration, Darwin's biology gives us a sense of progress. Instead of degradation, or the universe slowly losing everything, we get complexity, in which the universe continually adds more. In 13.8 billion years, the universe has shown a clear progression from atoms to molecules to cells to multicellular organisms to societies of organisms. According to Vidal and other scholars, the next step seems to be Earth becoming a planetary superorganism with a global metabolism and nervous system. If this trend continues to its logical conclusion, rather than the trend of rising disorder, then our universe may not meet quite so bitter an end.
Credit: Mondolithic Studios
Watch Vidal explain the concepts in his book in more detail here.