Becoming an astronomer was the dream of my brother, to study the stars and make sense of all their wonders. He never realized the dream, dying at the tragic age of 16, yet his many discussions on his views of the universe have always lingered in the back of my mind. Although children, we would discuss and argue about star distances, the universe origin, and whether there was ever an end to the vast expanse. And now, in the senior years of my life, I find myself with a keen interest in whatever is the end, not just the end of my short life, but the end as it applies to all we know. All of that will go on after I am gone, yet it is my belief that I am just the first of my concerns to face the end, to be followed at some future date by our beloved Earth, the solar system we know it and, yes, the universe itself.
The struggle I face is in our belief as humans that we are superior to all around us, that we and we alone have the key to eternity, an existence that knows no end. For my own life, I yield to these words:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19 KJV)
Simple, isn’t it? My exit will be final. No follow-up, no second chance, no do-over, no next phase. From childhood, however, I was taught otherwise, that my life had the key to eternity and would never end. From where does this belief originate? We people fear death and seek any belief that frees us from having an end. Religion does that, as no religion can be successful unless it provides a path that eliminates the fear of death. In fact, no religion can survive otherwise.
But in saying the above, I bypass key elements of myself and all of us, leaping too quickly to a summary. We humans didn’t start this way, did we? No, our acceptance of reality has been difficult, is still emerging, and I have struggled for decades to reach only a meager awareness of who I am. From the beginning, people had a need for gods to protect their existence and to ensure an afterlife or a rebirth. Our intelligence let us believe that we were empowered to speak with the creators of the universe and that these gods had a direct interest in our lives. Eternity was within our grasp. In our own way, we were also gods, having the ability to control our future.
Although we find it horrific that the ancient Aztec and Incan civilizations made ritual human sacrifices to their gods, their actions demonstrated the strength of belief in having direct contact with the supernatural and the ability to control life. In this way, they were demonstrating that they were also gods, controlling their world by appeasing gods of a higher nature. They controlled their world. They were gods themselves. And we are no different.
Horrible? Bloody? Uncivilized? Step lightly. We are those people. Yes, yes we are. Our methods have changed, but we continue to see our actions as being the authority on Earth, that what we decide should be right becomes right for us. We live in a different time, but we are still the same human race with the same ego, the same fears, and the same belief that what we do lives on beyond ourselves, that we are somehow eternal in what actions we do.
To us, life must have a meaning and purpose, that we were placed here for a reason. We expect life to give us meaningful experiences and that we are each unique. But is any of this true? Nothing in science indicates that life must have meaning or even that we are the norm in the universe. In fact, humans appear to be the most unexpected species on Earth and obviously the most dangerous to the Earth’s survival. And for what purpose?
We believe ourselves to be special and eternal, but we are as random as the stars that grace the sky. Consider the act of procreation itself wherein several hundred million sperm are launched with the mission to impregnate a single egg. Several hundred million, each with its own combination of DNA. Several hundred million. By simple random chance, each of us had a 1 in 300,000,000 chance of being conceived (which is approximately the same odds as winning the Powerball lottery with only one ticket), and a 300,000,000 to 1 chance that the conceived child would be ANYONE ELSE, yet we are here and we act as though our existence was foreordained. Had that sexual act occurred a moment earlier or later, neither of us would be here. How is that for happenstance?
And that’s just the randomness of us as individuals. On the level of the universe, our existence is even more rare and circumspect. Will we ever meet people from another planet? No, we will not. With billions of stars and distances of tens of thousands of light-years, who are we kidding? Even if it were to happen, they would need to be our equals in both technology and society for us to communicate at the lowest level. What if they were 1,000 years (only a second in eternal time) ahead of us in technology? They would view us the same as we view the technology and society of Neanderthals and other early humans. Instead of focusing on extraterrestrials, we should focus on our lives here on Earth and preserving what we have.
Yes, we could possibly create a significantly large tax to collect funds to build the technology to fly a ship to the stars carrying a handful of volunteers. And to what end? Is there a purpose in preserving humanity? Has our race improved the Earth so much that we deserve to live forever? And does escaping the Earth do that? My belief is this is a fool’s errand. Our focus is here.
And what of that idea of escaping Earth to build human communities elsewhere? The concept itself is that the universe is eternal, that human life can sustain itself so long as there is a planet on which to live. But our knowledge of the universe tells us otherwise. Scientists have already told us of many ways in which the Earth will end; it’s not here forever. And the sun that gives us light will also be gone in a few billion years. We know that the Andromeda Galaxy is headed toward our Milky Way, with a cataclysmic explosion that will destroy many of the billions of stars involved and the trillions of associated planets.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy exists in all systems, that over time all systems deteriorate. And this applies to the universe as well. Although its demise is billions or trillions or quadrillions of years in the future, there will be an end to the universe. There will be nothing. Nothing. And if there is nothing, whither eternity?