Two of the titles on The New York Times Book Review’s list of notable books in 2020 concerned the long-term fate of life and the cosmos: “Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe,” by Brian Greene, and “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking),” by Katie Mack. Both paint the same basic picture, which is either dreary or inspiring, depending on your point of view and psychology.
In the grand scheme of things, the universe is young. It was born in an eruption of energy 13.8 billion years ago. Its future, as far as we know, is endless, but everything interesting that will ever happen is happening now. This is the era of light, stars and galaxies; of creatures crawling around on dust motes, constructing telescopes and other intellectual pyramids, driven at least in part by wonder at the surroundings.
But in a few billion years the sun will engulf and destroy us. If the universe doesn’t collapse in a Big Crunch and disappear, dark energy could blow what remains permanently beyond the event horizon. The universe will become too cold and dead even for thought, let alone life. None of us will be remembered.
Should we curse our fate, or be grateful we were here for the party?
Lately a barred owl has come to live in my Manhattan neighborhood. Nicknamed Barnard after the college a block away, it has become a local celebrity. I saw it most recently in an old knotted elm on the edge of Riverside Park, surrounded by admiring humans with smartphones and telephoto lenses. A flock of crows kept trying to chase it away. For me, Barnard has become an omen, a harbinger of the essential generosity of nature in the low, slanting light of winter, a reminder that there is more going on in this world than just us. Even if the crows or the worsening weather causes Barnard to depart, I will feel blessed to have seen it.
On Dec. 3 astronomers from the European Gaia spacecraft, which has been mapping and measuring more than a billion stars in the Milky Way, released a video showing the projected motions of some 40,000 stars over the next 400,000 years. They looked like bugs swimming in a petri dish, twigs circling in the eddy of a stream, dust motes in a sunbeam.
Wherever those cosmic dust motes are headed, they will go regardless of whether we are here to watch, measure, map or wonder about them. Jupiter and Saturn will continue their dance; the sun and moon will play tag with each other’s shadows.
Odds are, whoever or whatever lives out there will never know that we were here at all, nor will we know them. But we know who we are. We know that we are alive now. We know whom we loved and whom we lost. Maybe that’s enough to ask of any universe.