Is the Universe Dying?

Is our 13.8 billion year old universe actually in its death throes?

Poor Universe, its demise announced right in it’s prime. At only 13.8 billion years old, when you peer across the multiverse it’s barely middle age. And yet, it sadly dwindles here in hospice.

Is it a Galactus infestation? The Unicronabetes? Time to let go, move on and find a new Universe, because this one is all but dead and gone and but a shell of its former self.

The news of imminent demise was recently broadcast in mid 2015. Based on research looking at the light coming from over 200,000 galaxies, they found that the galaxies are putting out half as much light as they were 2 billion years ago. So if our math is right, less light equals more death.

So tell it to me straight, Doctor Spaceman(SPAH-CHEM-AN), how long have we got? Astronomers have known for a long time that the Universe was much more active in the distant past, when everything was closer and denser, and better. Back then, more of it was the primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang, supplying galaxies for star formation. Currently, there are only 1 to 3 new stars formed in the Milky Way every year. Which is pretty slow by Milky Way standards.

Not even at the busiest time of star formation, our Sun formed 5 billion years ago. 5 billion years before that, just a short 4 billion after the Big Bang, star formation peaked out. There were 30 times more stars forming then, than we see today.

When stars were formed actually makes a difference. For example, the fact that it took so long for our Sun to form is a good thing. The heavier elements in the Solar System, really anything higher up the periodic table from hydrogen and helium, had to be formed inside other stars. Main sequence stars like our own Sun spew out heavier elements from their solar winds, while supernovae created the heaviest elements in a moment of catastrophic collapse. Astronomers are pretty sure we needed a few generations of stars to build up enough of the heavier elements that life depends on, and probably wouldn’t be here without it.

Even if life did form here on Earth billions of years ago, when the Universe was really cranking, it would wish it was never born. With 30 times as much star formation going on, there would be intense radiation blasting away from all these newly forming stars and their subsequent supernovae detonations. So be glad life formed when it did. Sometimes a little quiet is better.

So, how long has the Universe got? It appears that it’s not going to crash together in the future, it’s just going to keep on expanding, and expanding, forever and ever.

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

In a few billion years, star formation will be a fraction of what it is today. In a few trillion, only the longest lived, lowest mass red dwarfs will still be pushing out their feeble light. Then, one by one, galaxies will see their last star flicker and fade away into the darkness. Then there’ll only be dead stars and dead planets, cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe as their galaxies accelerate from one another into the expanding void.

Eventually everything will be black holes, or milling about waiting to be trapped in black holes. And these black holes themselves will take an incomprehensible mighty pile of years to evaporate away to nothing.

So yes, our Universe is dying. Just like in a cheery Sartre play, it started dying the moment it began its existence. According to astronomers, the Universe will never truly die. It’ll just reach a distant future when there’s so little usable energy, it’ll be mostly dead. Dead enough? Dead inside.

As Miracle Max knows, mostly dead is still slightly alive. Who knows what future civilizations will figure out in the googol years between then and now.

Too sad? Let’s wildly speculate on futuristic technologies advanced civilizations will use to outlast the heat death of the Universe or flat out cheat death and re-spark it into a whole new cycle of Universal renewal.

6 Replies to “Is the Universe Dying?”

  1. What a bummer to have been born into a dying universe. Just my luck! I always hate it when the party ends and, one by one and two by two, the guests head for the exit. What do you other DUDs (Dying Universe Dwellers) think? Is this depressing scenario the fate of all universe-bubbles in the multiverse-foam, or are some lucky enough to maintain stasis? Is that even possible? Do some expand and contract cyclically? Are the laws of physics the same in each bubble?
    I’ve often had the feeling I was in the wrong bubble, that if I was in the right one Arabs and Jews would be dancing together through the streets of Jerusalem. Anyone else? Your thoughts, please.

  2. It is whatever we make of it. Just got to find the will to solve the problems…. Doctor Who universe exploits occasionally bridge universes and pocket universes (and yes they are different!) Just make the system big enough and shunt the problem to the waste site… and you have heat!

  3. Wow.
    Only 1 to 3 stars are being born per year in the Milky Way ? And less than 100 new stars per year at its peak 2 to 3 billion years ago ? It just goes to show how old the Milky Way is considering there’s up to 400 billion stars in it.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there a whole lot of free floating gas still lurking about in the spaces between galaxies and galaxy clusters? I’ve heard that even in the local Universe, most of the baryonic matter is free floating hydrogen and helium, about 50% on average, and upwards of 90% in the rich clusters. I read an article on Universe Today a while back taking about a massive gas halo surrounding the Milky Way that contains as much mass as all of the stars in the galaxy. Andromeda has a similar halo, and it was just discovered recently. That’s a whole lot of potential star fuel waiting to be utilized. Granted, it’s harder for that gas to form stars now, since it’s so much more spread out than before.

    Also, when talking about the brighter galaxies billions of years ago, couldn’t that be mostly due to the higher prevalence of O and B type stars in that era, which are upwards of thousands of times brighter than our Sun? In the current Universe, there seem to be many more dim, red stars, the lowest of which are about 1/10,00th as bright as our Sun. Couldn’t a big part of the discrepancy be attributed to having more dim stars, instead of just having fewer stars?

    1. I forgot the exact percentage, but there will be gas that never collapses into a star by the time the universe meets it’s end trillions of years from now.

  5. it’s a nice thought experiment. of course you all know not to trust anyone who claims to be able to give a definitive answer on such a subject…

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