This Is The Way The World Ends

Jun 30, 2016

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

It’s easy to forget that we all live within sight of the galaxy’s largest nuclear reactor: the Sun. The Sun’s photosphere, the part we can see during the day when it isn’t overcast, is made up of mostly hydrogen. All of that hydrogen fuels the sun’s reactive core where temperatures reach such unfathomable levels—25 million degrees Fahrenheit—that the word “hot” fails to describe such extreme heat.

At the Sun’s core, spent hydrogen is converted into helium, which the sun will desperately burn later in its life cycle before collapsing, cooling, and fading away as just another burned out star littering the heavens.

But before the Sun shrinks to a “white dwarf,” it will swell to a “red giant.” This is bad news for Earth and any species that might happen to still be around 5 billion years from now as our planet will be engulfed and incinerated by the expanding Sun.

We've evolved to the point in which we have the capability to radically change our destiny through the creation and application of technology.

Not surprisingly, scientists disagree over whether or not Earth will perish in the crucible of an expanding Sun. Some scientists postulate that as the Sun expands like a balloon being inflated with helium, it will lose approximately a third of its mass to solar winds, resulting in a dwindling gravitational pull. With less gravity, Earth’s orbit will expand and the planet will be spared.

Well, what’s left of the planet anyway: long before the Sun becomes a red giant, it will have heated up Earth to the point that all the seas and oceans boil and evaporate, carrying the atmosphere off into space.

At the current burn rate, we have about 1 billion years before things heat up enough to evaporate all the water and the atmosphere. When this happens, all life on Earth will perish. The Sun, it seems, has been life’s Faustian bargain: it giveth and it taketh away.

I want to save the natural world just as much as the next environmentally conscious human being. In the end, however, all our efforts to save the Earth will be in vain. Sorry to drop such a galactic bummer on you, but the world will most certainly end in extreme heat. This is not license for carelessness and unbridled environmental degradation, which is our current path; rather, it is a realization of the deep future’s stark reality and a call to re-orienting our present thinking toward the long view of human survival and evolution.

I foresee three possible scenarios for the future of the human race:

Scenario #1:  We destroy ourselves and become just another extinct species like the many other species that have come and gone before us. This scenario could take many forms. We could, of course, do it the old fashioned way and destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons or some other weapon of mass destruction that has yet to be invented. We could destroy our food chain through some botched bio-engineering or create a synthetic nano-virus that quickly wipes out the human race. Or we might create artificially intelligent machines that decide we are no longer necessary and exterminate us. (Think  The Matrix or Terminator movies. The machines win.) 

There are many other doomsday scenarios. The ways in which we might destroy ourselves seem endless, which is perhaps why this seems to be such a likely scenario.

Scenario #2:  We save the planet and exist until the Sun evaporates the world’s water supply and atmosphere. Then we perish along with all other life on Earth.

Scenario #3:  We advance technology to the point that we are capable of either, a) preventing the death of our Sun through some very deep understanding of chemistry and physics combined with some very tricky engineering, or, b) we leave Earth and head off to a cooler and more inhabitable corner of the galaxy where we can live long and prosper.

Although I’ve never been accused of being an optimist, I am optimistic that we still have the potential to figure out how to create and intelligently apply technology in order to solve the many current and long-range problems facing us. I say “potential” because currently, we’re not focusing our efforts on solving big problems, rather, we seem to be preoccupied with creating and using technology that’s more geared for bread and circuses.

We’ve evolved to the point in which we have the capability to radically change our destiny through the creation and application of technology but we could also destroy everything in the process that we need here on spaceship Earth to continue the journey (think scenario #1).

This is the tricky task of creating and using technology and yet it is what we must do if we are to survive and continue to evolve over the long haul in a solar system that will eventually burn up and a universe that is slowly burning out.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.