Sunday, December 07, 2014

space, man

Sometimes you read something that just sticks with you. That lingers long after the last syllables are uttered in your mind, long after the last page is turned or you've scrolled until you cannot scroll any further. Something about those stories, maybe it's the subject, more likely it is the way they are told; the language, the style, the way the words fit and move together - all of this makes it stick. 

When I read this piece by Elmo Keep on Medium a few weeks ago, I knew right away it would be one of those pieces. 'All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go' is a fascinating tale of space exploration, of a one way journey to Mars and an Australian man who has signed on the bottom line. 

But, more than that, it's about something that I find myself as intrigued by as I am terrified. Maybe terrified is the wrong word. 

I live in a part of Australia where at night, after the sun has set, the sky is alive with specks of light we know to be stars. I'm fascinated by these specks of light but if I stare at them too long, if I find myself thinking in too much detail about space, about how far away those stars are, about the Moon and the planets and the Sun and everything else that constitutes the universe we live in, my head starts to hurt. It's too big for me to think about in any real way.

I've often thought about why this is so. Why contemplation of this universe feels so impossible for me and after reading Elmo Keep's piece I think I've finally figured it out. When you think about the realities of space, the distance, the hugeness of it all, it makes this life I'm leading on this planet that I live on so minuscule in comparison. So tiny as to almost not deserve thinking of. Who am I but a tiny person, living a tiny life on a tiny planet in this giant universe? 

The nature of the human existence means questions like that hit right where it hurts. How can we mean so much, yet so little? How can our impact be so great, yet disappear so soon? How can we be here, now and be gone in an instant? How can we exist?

In her captivating piece, Elmo Keep chronicles a timeline of the earth towards nothingness. 

"If all human life were to disappear from the Earth tomorrow, it would take the planet only 100 million years to completely reclaim the surface, leaving no single trace of proof that intelligent beings ever existed here. All the satellites orbiting the planet will, untended, fall, many coming to rest at the bottom of the sea. 

The last manmade structures standing will be the Pyramids and Mount Rushmore; its granite resists erosion at an elevation that exposes it to little wind, leaving it recognisable 10,000 years from now. In five million years it will be gone."

"Five billion years from now our sun will enter its red giant phase and expand to at least 200 times its current size, enveloping Mercury, Venus, and quite possibly Earth in the process.

One hundred trillion years from now all the hydrogen of the universe will be exhausted, and so all remaining stars will die. In one hundred vigintillion years quantum tunneling will turn all matter left in the universe into liquid.

In 10^10^120 years (zeros are now added in septillions, numbers too big for our minds to grasp) our universe will experience its heat death, encountering maximum entropy when there is no longer enough thermodynamic free energy to sustain processes that consume energy—like life.

By this point, time itself will have ceased to exist."

It is brutal in its truth. But it is also strangely beautiful, like things that exist outside of human intervention often are. 

It's cloudy this afternoon, the sky a sobering shade of grey that makes me think of the Earth pulling a blanket over itself, hiding from whatever it is that it doesn't want to see. I'm hopeful the clouds will clear by this evening. I'd like to look at the stars. Maybe, just maybe, I can think a little longer about them tonight. 

kb xx

P.S. If you want to ponder the future of the universe, check out this Wikipedia article, which Elmo Keep links to in her piece. Warning: it may do some very strange and scary things to your mind.