Consider the following scenario: a forest fire is raging out of control, and is threatening to engulf your neighbourhood. You and all of your neighbours have four hours to collect your belongings and leave your homes, knowing that there may be nothing left when you return. What would you take with you, assuming that you had one medium-sized car and one SUV to carry your family members and your possessions?
How many of us, when faced with that evacuation scenario (assuming that we had several hours to pack) could jump into our cars and say the following? “The best things in life are free. I’m just happy that my family and I are safe. We’re not taking anything with us”.
This is an admirable philosophy, and living a life in which you are completely detached from your possessions and indifferent to the accumulation of wealth is certainly a lofty goal. However, it’s also an unattainable goal for almost all of us – the Dalai Lama being a notable exception. Let’s face it – even if we eschew conspicuous consumption, we still love our stuff. Our belongings define us, and tell others about the kind of people we are, our tastes, and even our level sophistication and education. Some items with a low actual value often have a very high sentimental value. We keep and cherish these items because they evoke happy memories even decades later, and often mark the milestones of our life’s journey.
Therefore, my answer to that questions is: no one. Every one of us would spend the entire time packing as much as we could into both cars (making several trips, if we could), and bring with us, anything that had either monetary or sentimental value. A lifetime of exposure to advertising has created an indelible bond between our possessions and our sense of self.
That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to watch severe weather news stories, because the media invariably interviews people who have lost everything they own in a wildfire, flood or tornado. As wrenching as this is to watch (much less experience), this is merely a loss on an individual level. Let’s zoom out a little and look at a similar loss on a global scale. What if every one of us lost all of our possessions?
According to Wikipedia, our sun will become a Red Giant in about five billion years. At that time, its diameter will increase until it becomes 200 times its current size, and its outer edge will be in the Earth’s orbit. This means that Mercury, Venus and the Earth will be completely consumed by the sun and incinerated. I admit this sounds disastrous, but during the next five billion years – assuming that humankind hasn’t nuked itself out of existence or rendered the Earth uninhabitable – I expect that we will have devised a way to travel to and colonize other planets and then eke out an existence elsewhere.
Now let’s zoom out a little more and examine loss on a cosmological scale.
I assume that most of you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory – not the television series, but the hypothesis that offers to explain how the universe was created. About 13.75 billion years ago, all of the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point called a singularity, which then expanded very rapidly, much like an explosion. Many people who subscribe to this hypothesis also believe that the universe will end with the Big Crunch – the Big Bang in reverse. At this moment, our universe is still expanding (as it has been doing since it was created), but at some point in the future, this expansion will cease and the universe will then start contracting. This contraction will continue until all of the matter in the universe collapses into a single point once again, and it will be denser than a black hole. This will be the end of space and time, the universe itself, and (most importantly) everything that was created by its inhabitants.
Although the Big Crunch won’t happen anytime soon, this is still a distressing thought. Everything that humans have ever created and accomplished – every book, building, invention, language, medicine, piece of art, music, poetry, sculpture and computer software – all of our accumulated wisdom along with the fruits of all of our labours – will one day cease to exist. Saving our knowledge from our sun as it becomes a Red Giant is a trivial matter – we simply have to move to Mars or to the outer planets in our own solar system – but there is no escape from the Big Crunch. There is no place in the universe where we can safely store this knowledge – no celestial bank vault or safety-deposit box – because, ultimately, all of the matter in the universe will eventually be destroyed. Note: I’m using a bit of literary license when I use the word destroyed. I realize that matter cannot be created or destroyed, but during the Big Crunch, the information, knowledge and wisdom contained in that matter will no longer be in a readable form.
So what can we do? If the universe is collapsing into a singularity of infinite density, the situation does seem hopeless… unless of course, you examine things from The Bob Angle. While so many others are spending their time occupying parks, protesting, saving the world from greed, corruption, global warming, ozone depletion, capitalists and the unequal distribution of wealth, I have been spending my time analyzing this longer-term concern – preserving our growing and increasingly-valuable repository of knowledge.
I have an idea – a pre-emptive response to a collective S.O.S. (Save Our Stuff). It’s a long shot, both literally and metaphorically, but I’m going to suggest it anyway. We can launch a space probe – one that contains a digitized version of all of our accumulated knowledge, and of course a device that will read and translate this data for the benefit of anyone who finds it.
You’re probably thinking – wait a minute Bob, you’re missing the point! If the entire universe is going to collapse, then why bother sending out a space probe anywhere since it will also be destroyed in the Big Crunch? Yes, that is a reasonable question. The next step in this plan, after launching the probe is ensuring that it will reach the edge of the universe. Before we can do that, we first need to find out if this is even possible. The universe is still expanding, but how fast is it expanding? After doing a bit of research, I found out that the rate of expansion has its own special unit, called the Hubble Constant. There is some debate over its exact value, but the best guess so far is 71 km/s/Mpc (kilometres per second per megaparsec). The expansion rate is actually a bit more complicated than a simple velocity, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just assume that the universe is expanding at 71km/s.
If we can get our space probe to exceed the speed at which the universe is expanding, then it will eventually reach the edge of the universe. Luckily, space is practically a vacuum, so as long as our probe doesn’t hit anything, it won’t slow down. A continual propulsion source (from solar panels or a small nuclear reactor) can ensure a continual increase in speed. As a reference, the Helios 1 and Helios 2 space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976, respectively, achieved a speed record of 70.22 km/s in their orbit around the sun. Exceeding the speed of the universe’s rate of expansion does appear to to be attainable, which means that we can launch a space probe, filled with our accumulated knowledge, and (theoretically) have it reach the edge of the universe.
The crucial question is: what will happen when our space probe hits the edge of the universe? I have no idea, but after giving it some thought, I think that it will be one of the following scenarios:
- It will it bounce off the universe’s “wall”, and then simply proceed in the opposite direction, like a cosmic game of Pong.
- It will disintegrate or otherwise be completely destroyed because it came into contact with an out-of-bounds area.
- It will become stuck to the edge of the universe by some previously unknown attractive force.
- It will re-appear on the other side of the universe, as is if entered a wormhole (much like the arcade game Asteroids, where moving your ship off the right edge of the screen makes it appear again on the left).
- It will re-appear in some random place in the universe, much like pressing the hyperspace button in the arcade game Asteroids.
- It will penetrate the edge, and enter some other dimension.
- It will penetrate the edge and enter the Creator’s World – much like an ant escaping from an ant farm.
Of these possibilities, the last two are the most intriguing, because they hold the promise of continuity along with the notion that something may exist outside our universe. When we die, most of us hope that there will be some form of afterlife, because we believe in the continuity of our awareness, or soul. We can’t accept that our essence can just cease, and that we will simply wink our of existence. Similarly, it would be just as tragic if all of our accumulated knowledge and wisdom also vanished during the Big Crunch. The last two items in the list give us hope that our collective efforts will not ultimately be in vain, and that we, as a species, will be able to leave something valuable behind for others, or present something of value to the creator of the universe.
I have no idea which of these possibilities will turn out to be correct (if any), and I can’t even calculate the odds of a space probe reaching, in one piece, the edge of an expanding universe. However, if we do nothing, then all will be for naught – everything that every human has ever created will be destroyed. We may not be successful, but at some point in the future, we have to at least try to find a place for our stuff, and preserve all that we’ve created.