STARGAZING: How will it all end?

We're at the best place, near the beginning, with the end of the book nowhere in sight.

The universe started just under 14 billion years ago, with some sort of tweak of the fabric of space-time.

At that moment the conditions leading to the universe we live in today were established. If it had a beginning, it is logical to think it could have an end. What are we finding out about that?

In the beginning the universe was tiny, unbelievably dense and extremely hot. It then started to expand, became less dense, and the temperature fell. Eventually atoms could exist, and then galaxies, stars, planets and us. The expansion is the result of a push outwards. This is being opposed by every object in the universe tugging gravitationally at every other object. The future of the universe will be determined by which wins: the force driving the expansion, or the gravitational force pulling everything back together. If the expansion of the universe was not initially fast enough, the expansion will gradually slow, stop and then everything will start falling back, until at some time in the distant future, everything would be back in one lump. Maybe that lump will start to expand again. However, if the expansion began fast enough, the universe will expand forever. Gravity would gradually slow it, but never stop it.

To test this idea requires totalling up all the mass in the universe, and then seeing if its combined gravity is enough to stop the expansion. Scientists have gone through this process several times, and each time they got the same answer. There is not enough matter to stop the expansion. The universe will continue to expand indefinitely. Recent discoveries have underlined this conclusion. There is something in the universe called dark energy, which helps drive the expansion, and as the universe gets more spread out, weakening its collective gravity, the dark energy is becoming increasingly dominant and is speeding up the expansion. So what lies ahead for us?

Over billions of years the other galaxies will get more distant, as they get carried away by the expansion. Our Sun will run out of fuel, sneeze off its outer layers and end up as a slowly-cooling white dwarf star. New stars will continue to be born in the great gas clouds in the spiral arms of galaxies for some time yet, but eventually there will be no material left and star formation will cease. However, white dwarf stars cool very slowly and red dwarf stars are so niggardly in their use of fuel that they will smoulder on for tens of billions of years. So eventually the universe will consist of cooling white dwarf stars and dim red dwarfs. When they eventually go out all will become dark. Eventually even the elementary particles making up all matter will themselves decay, leaving the universe as an increasingly rarified miasma of decayed particles. Given enough time even black holes will decay.

Actually, the tale is not quite as dark as it might seem. An idea attracting a lot of scientific attention is that there may be a sort of multidimensional cosmic foam, in which universes form as bubbles, which expand and then eventually dissipate. New universes are forming all the time. Some researchers report evidence of contact points between our universe and others. With accumulating knowledge and ever-improving research tools, we have reached a position that would have been hard to predict even a few decades ago. However, it is also clear that we are uncovering ever bigger and more subtle questions. There is no danger of our learning everything, or even of understanding more than a tiny bit of what is going on. This is a book we’ve hardly begun to read. We’re at the best place, near the beginning, with the end of the book nowhere in sight. Have a Great Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Jupiter rises around 9 p.m. Mars still lurks low in the sunset glow. Saturn lies low in the low in the dawn sky. The Moon will reach First Quarter on Dec. 28.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, B.C.


Just Posted

This photo of the small wildfire burning above Naramata was taken at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021 (Monique Tamminga Western News)
BC Wildfire on scene of small wildfire above Naramata

Black smoke can be seen rising from the mountain

Keremeos’ heritage Grist Mill and Gardens. (Brennan Phillips - Keremeos Review)
Keremeos Grist Mill looking forward to restrictions easing with exclusive concert planned

Juno Award-winning folk artist Valdy is set to take the stage

Letter writer says COVID has created lots of newbie cyclists who don't know rules of cycling. (File photo)
LETTER: Newbie cyclists in Penticton need lessons on rules of the road

Penticton cycling group just received city funding, should give back by offering how-to lessons

No dental coverage for low income Canadians. (File photo)
OPINION: Penticton MP’s proposal for universal dental coverage rejected

One in 3 Canadians have no dental coverage, with COVID making it even worse

The weekly COVID-19 map for June 6 to 12. (BC CDC)
South Okanagan sees only 5 new cases in last week

The Similkameen Valley went a second week without any new cases

Bear wanders Kelowna on June 15. (Michelle Wallace/Facebook)
Bear climbs fence, uses crosswalk in Kelowna

The bear was spotted on Baron Road Wednesday evening

Students in the Grade 10 entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School have completed a cookbook with international recipes. (Contributed)
Summerland students create virtual international cookbook

Entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School uses virtual cookbook as fundraiser

Hundreds of people, young and old, joined the three-day Walking Our Spirits Home procession, honouring residential school survivors, those who never made it home and all those affected by the institutions. Here people walk the third portion on June 13. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Walking Our Spirits Home from Kamloops provides path to healing

First Nations in and beyond Secwépemc territory join in to honour residential school survivors

More flames
Lake Country home destroyed in large blaze, 11 dogs rescued

Fire crews are responding to 10839 Hallam Drive

(Facebook/Kelowna Cabs)
Kelowna Cabs reaches tentative agreement with dispatchers union

The tentative agreement could help end the dispute between the taxi company and the dispatchers

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

A boat sharing service is extending to Summerland. The company, Penticton Boat Club and Rentals, is also taking over the boat rentals at Summerland Waterfront Resort. (Photo by Chris Stenberg)
Boat sharing service extended from Penticton to Summerland

Company will also operate boat rentals at Summerland Waterfront Resort

201 First Street West 1980s. Prior revitalization. (Photo from Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
Man who redesigned downtown Revelstoke honoured with lifetime achievement award

Robert Inwood has worked on historical projects across the province

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

Most Read