The End of Everything (Astronomically Speaking)
by Katie Mack
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 5, 2022
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The links above are for the paperback, but I started with the audio book. I don't do audio often, since I find it hard to concentrate on audio only. I've had multiple free trials of Audible through Amazon, but I've always canceled before the end of the month, but still got to keep the audio files. Why they continue to offer me another freebie I don't know, but I took advantage of it again. Unfortunately, this is a highly detailed book with a lot of scientific terms, some of which I don't think I'd heard or read before, so I kept setting it aside to read other things (or not read at all, since I've had trouble concentrating on anything lately). I eventually got the e-book from my library, and read along with the audio. There were still a few problems, because all the footnotes were held to the end of each chapter in the e-book, plus the narrator, Gabra Zackman, did not read the captions for any of the illustrations. On those occasions I paused the audio to read the captions, and tried to make sense of the illustrations, but they were very small and not expandable. Not sure if that is the case on the Kindle file I could buy, or for other e-book formats, so if anything I have to say sparks your interest I suggest you look for the paperback, either at your library, your favorite bookstore, or use our links to Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Dr. Katherine Mack's Twitter handle is @AstroKatie. She is a theoretical astrophysicist, currently holding the position of Assistant Professor of Physics at North Carolina State University. This book details all the various theories as to both the beginning and possible endings of the universe(s). Yes, she does mention the possibility of multiple universes, some of which might have continued existence after ours has ended. It can all be a bit sobering, especially when she mentions possibilities that could occur at any time without warning, but then she reassures us by saying those are unlikely, and the real end will be so far into the future that it hardly bears thinking about. For the average person that is, she and her fellow scientists won't stop thinking and experimenting on different things that might bring more knowledge to the subject. She has studied and experimented at CERN at least once, and collaborated with others on various projects. Some she mentions might have only been interviewed as research for the book, but she quotes a couple of giants in the field, Roger Penrose and Freeman Dyson being a couple with whom anyone with an interest in science should be familiar. And of course, Einstein is mentioned quite frequently, since most everything he proposed in his general theory of relativity has yet to be refuted, no matter how hard some have tried to do so.
I won't go into much detail, since I'm hardly qualified to comment on things I barely understand myself, but it does interest me to learn more. After an introduction that explains what she intends to discuss, the first chapter is about the universe's possible beginning. In "Big Bang to Now" we learn of how that theory originated, from the discovery that other galaxies were receding from our own, and that cosmic background radiation was uniform throughout the visible cosmos (at that time of course, and now that we can see further, it is still the case). The CBR is thought to be evidence of the point in time that expansion began, shortly after the Big Bang. Anyone who objects to such theories as going against religious teachings should be aware that one of the first to propose the theory was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître. He now shares credit along with Edwin Hubble to the Hubble–Lemaître Law, which postulates the "Hubble Constant," that the speed at which a galaxy is receding from us is proportionate to its distance from us. The farther away, the faster it is receding. The word "Constant" is frequently repeated, and usually capitalized in relation to a specific principle, such as Planck's Constant. Think of it like pi, a figure or concept generally agreed upon. The Cosmological Constant was originally part of Einstein's relativity theory, later removed, then even later reinstated by others. It relates to two things still not fully understood, dark matter and dark energy. Even if those have not been fully explained, the effects they have on other things can be observed. That's the thing about a lot of science; experiments are performed to confirm or deny hypothoses, since the effects have already been observed. X has to be true since we can see a reaction to it by Y.
The following chapters discuss the different ways that have been postulated that the universe might end. Big Crunch, Heat Death, Big Rip, Vacuum Decay, and Bounce. There are several related theories within each section, but I won't get into them. Mack says Heat Death is the most likely, although for personal reasons she would prefer Vacuum Decay to be the correct scenario. That is because, if it occurred in our lifetime, it would happen so suddenly we wouldn't even know it was coming, and it would be over before we realized it, and of course we wouldn't realize it because we'd already be gone. Bounce is what I've speculated, but of course my opinion means nothing. It just seems the most symmetrical; a continuing expansion, followed by a contraction, then a bounce that starts the process all over again. At first I thought that was what was meant by the Big Crunch, but apparently that would be a contraction ending with everything compressing down to the singularity that existed before the Big Bang, but that would be the end, not another beginning. Heat Death would be if the expansion continued forever, everything so distant from any other part of the cosmos that observation would be impossible. Just a fade away to nothingness. The Big Rip would be contingent on the properties of dark matter and dark energy, which as mentioned above is still poorly understood. It would be similar to the Heat Death, but (I think) would last even longer.
One might think contemplation of these theories are meaningless, because even Katie acknowledges that no matter which is true, there is nothing we can do about it. But science is about exploring the unknown, and you never know where the experiments might lead, whether it be the study of the macro (suns, planets, galaxies) or the micro (atomic and sub-atomic particles). Anything we learn might relate to other things, just as the space program has lead to better computers, remote medical sensors, or composite materials stronger than metals. We have to understand where everything came from before we can make sense of how things are now, not to mention how things will be in the future. Katie knows it is likely she will not be around for all the problems to be solved, but it is the journey toward solving the problems that interests her now. There is one thing that puzzles me though. It's something I saw in a recent PBS Nova episode, and Katie mentions it here. If everything is expanding and receding from everything else, why is it speculated that the Andromeda Galaxy will eventually collide with the Milky Way? I should re-read it, or re-listen, and re-watch that episode to better understand. It might relate to the Big Rip scenario.
I'll end this with a quote, not from this book, but something Katie posted on Twitter recently: "Personally, I think part of the problem around people's trust or distrust of science is tied up in the notion that the scientific community is some sort of organized cabal -- the main reason the consensus of the sci community can ever be trusted is that it's a big chaotic mess! Within the scientific community, we pretty much spend all our time appraising, critiquing, doubting, and attempting to alter/improve/undermine each other's results. We don't trust each other, but if we go through all that mess and end up grudgingly agreeing, it's pretty reliable." Also, as I said above about Einstein, if everyone is conducting experiments based on his posulates, and all have confimed them, no matter how much some wanted it otherwise, he still has to be considered the greatest theoretical physicist we've seen yet. I don't think Katie would disagree.
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