Physicists describe grim end of the world
January 15, 1997
Web posted at: 10:20 p.m. EST (0320 GMT)
In this story:
TORONTO (CNN) -- Scientists have been pondering for years how
the universe will end, and now two University of Michigan
astrophysicists have come up with a scenario that may make
everyone breathe a little easier.
The good news is that the end is not near. The bad news is
that when it does come, it's not going to be pretty.
The stars, the sun and the earth will die -- evaporating into
radiation -- and there will be no light, only a vast soup of
"The fate of the earth is still in some sense not certain,"
astrophysicist Greg Laughlin says. "It's not clear if it
will be destroyed by the sun or whether it will escape being
destroyed when the sun turns into a red giant."
Laughlin and his University of Michigan colleague, Fred
Adams, were in Toronto to describe their scenario at the
winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
The universe as we know it, with stars and planets and life,
is only temporary and is actually rather young, about 10
billion years old.
"We don't live in a preferred time," Adams says. "Our current
cosmological epoch has no central place in time." The here
and now is but a brief phase, he says, in a sweep of time and
change almost unfathomable to the human mind.
Using new information about the nature of the universe, they
divided time into segments measured by what they call
cosmological decades. Ten billion would be decade 10, or 10
multiplied by itself 10 times.
They call current time the Stelliferous, or star-filled era,
a period that is about half over. At 20 billion to 30 billion
years, the sun will expand into a red ball and die,
overwhelming Earth with the heat. Oceans will boil and
evaporate, and other planets near the sun also will burn,
leaving nothing but orbiting chunks of barren rock.
At cosmological decade 15 (10 multiplied by itself 15 times),
the Degenerate Era begins. Other stars will begin to die off
as they burn up their nuclear fuel and the firmament as we
know it ceases to shine.
"If you wait long enough," Adams says, "all of the stars in
the universe will eventually run out of fuel and burn out."
The universe then enters a second stage, an epoch of
"It's an era when most material is locked up in dead stars
such as black holes, or white dwarfs," Laughlin says.
This era, 100 trillion trillion trillion years from now,
marks the end of all planets. Protons, the subatomic
particles at the center of the nuclei of atoms, will begin to
decay. Without protons, matter evaporates into radiation.
Carbon-based life is not possible, because carbon does not
exist without protons.
"The proton decay epoch will initiate the most significant
change in the universe," Adams says.
Cosmological decade 38 begins the black-hole era. Black holes
feast on material sucked in from nearby and grow larger. This
continues for about 60 cosmological decades.
And then, at cosmological decade 100, the dark era begins.
"Once the black holes have radiated away, the universe will
consist of a diffuse sea of electrons, positrons, neutrinos
and radiation," says Adams.
And the universe is totally black.
"If you could transport yourself to the dark era, and look,
the sky would be extremely dark," Laughlin says.
Adams and Laughlin say their study assumes that the universe
will expand forever. To put a date on the end of the world in
their scenario, take the year "one" and add 200 zeroes.
Other scientists believe the universe is closed, and that
eventually it will contract in what some have called the "big
Either way, the end looks a little bleak. The good news is,
it's a long, long way off.
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