We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are

Aren’t we lucky? Here we are, a mass of atoms, staring at another mass of atoms about to consider the origin of the universe and all the other atoms it contains. Isn’t that amazing? That all those atoms you consist of, most of them made during a supernova explosion billions of years ago, are able to arrange themselves in such a way that they are able to come to an understanding regarding the very beginnings of time.

Not only that, but for us to be able to glean as much as we have about the early history of the universe is only possible because we happen to have evolved very early on in what will be the history of the universe. Time began approximately 13.8 billion years ago, but time won’t end for some 100 trillion years or more at the heat death of the universe. This is currently our best theory of how the universe will ‘end’. Basically every atom and every planet and every star and every black hole and every everything will have dissipated and cooled down and ceased to be. There will be nothingness. The universe will have reached a state of complete entropy from which it cannot recover. And here we are, a clump of ultimately doomed atoms able to comprehend that.

That we are able to understand any of this is partly down to the combination of our curious nature and the development of our greatest creation, the scientific method, but it’s also down to luck. We are lucky that we came along as early as we have in the lifetime of the universe; we’re about 14 billion years in to what will be a 100 trillion year rollercoaster. That means we’re less than 200 hundredths of 1% into the life of the universe. In human terms the universe hasn’t even had its ass slapped yet by an overly enthusiastic midwife.

This actually confers several advantages upon us that won’t be available to the civilisations of a trillion years from now. Our telescopes are able to look back to within the first few hundred million years after the big bang. We can see lots of galaxies around us and we’re able to see that they are nearly all moving away from us. That rate of expansion, and the fact that we know that that rate is increasing, are key to our understanding of both the explosive origins, and the humble end, of this universe.

Trillions of years from now the galaxies of the universe will have moved so far away from each other that they will become undetectable. The universe will appear static, and with that false observation will be lost the ability to reason out some of the key fundamental properties of the universe. An entire branch of science will be lost and the universe will be poorer for it. All of this is, of course, really quite a long time from now. Perhaps by then we will have figured out how to do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs and Hari Seldon’s plan will have led to the triumph of the Foundation. We’ll never know. Until then I intend to sit back and allow my atoms to revel in their good fortune.

An irrelevant but beautiful picture of the Pinwheel Galaxy
An irrelevant but beautiful picture of the Pinwheel Galaxy

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