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the End of

46 S C I E N T I F I C A M E R I C A N March 2008

LONELY PLANET: As space empties out

because of the quickening cosmic expansion,
the galaxy that Earth inhabits will come to be
surrounded by a total void.

An accelerating universe wipes out

traces of its own origins

By Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer

ne hundred years ago a Scientific
American article about the history
and large-scale structure of the
universe would have been almost
completely wrong. In 1908 scientists thought
our galaxy constituted the entire universe. They
considered it an “island universe,” an isolated
cluster of stars surrounded by an infi nite void.
We now know that our galaxy is one of more
than 400 billion galaxies in the observable uni-
verse. In 1908 the scientific consensus was that
the universe was static and eternal. The begin-
ning of the universe in a fiery big bang was not KEY CONCEPTS
even remotely suspected. The synthesis of ele-
■ A decade ago astronomers
ments in the fi rst few moments of the big bang
made the revolutionary
and inside the cores of stars was not understood. discovery that the expansion
The expansion of space and its possible curva- of the universe is speeding up.
ture in response to matter was not dreamed of. They are still working out
Recognition of the fact that all of space is bathed its implications.
in radiation, providing a ghostly image of the ■ The quickening expansion will
cool afterglow of creation, would have to await eventually pull galaxies apart
the development of modern technologies faster than light, causing them
designed not to explore eternity but to allow to drop out of view. This process
humans to phone home. eliminates reference points for
It is hard to think of an area of intellectual measuring expansion and
inquiry that has changed more in the past cen- dilutes the distinctive products
tury than cosmology, and the shift has trans- of the big bang to nothingness.
formed how we view the world. But must sci- In short, it erases all the signs
that a big bang ever occurred.
ence in the future always reflect more empirical
knowledge than existed in the past? Our recent ■ To our distant descendants,
work suggests that on cosmic timescales, the the universe will look like
answer is no. We may be living in the only epoch a small puddle of stars in
an endless, changeless void.
in the history of the universe when scientists can
achieve an accurate understanding of the true ■ What knowledge has the

nature of the universe. universe already erased?

A dramatic discovery almost a decade ago —The Editors

motivated our study. Two different groups of cosmological constant produces a fi xed “event
astronomers traced the expansion of the uni- horizon,” an imaginary surface beyond which
verse over the past five billion years and found no matter or radiation can reach us. The uni-
that it appears to be speeding up. The source of verse comes to resemble an inside-out black
this cosmic antigravity is thought to be some hole, with matter and radiation trapped outside
new form of “dark energy” associated with the horizon rather than inside it. This fi nding
empty space. Some theorists, including one of means that the observable universe contains
us (Krauss), had actually anticipated this new only a fi nite amount of information, so infor-
result based on indirect measurements, but in mation processing (and life) cannot endure for-
physics it is direct observations that count. The ever [see “The Fate of Life in the Universe,” by

STEVE GREEN Vanderbilt University (Krauss and Scherrer); SLIM FILMS (sphere illustrations)
acceleration of the universe implies that empty Lawrence M. Krauss and Glenn D. Starkman;
space contains almost three times as much ener- Scientific American, November 1999].
gy as all the cosmic structures we observe today: Long before this information limit becomes
galaxies, clusters and superclusters of galaxies. a problem, all the expanding matter in the uni-
Ironically, Albert Einstein fi rst postulated such verse will be driven outside the event horizon.
a form of energy to keep the universe static. He This process has been studied by Abraham Loeb
called it the cosmological constant [see “Cosmo- and Kentaro Nagamine, both then at Harvard
logical Antigravity,” by Lawrence M. Krauss; University, who found that our so-called Local
Scientific American, January 1999]. Group of galaxies (the Milky Way, Andromeda
Dark energy will have an enormous impact and a host of orbiting dwarf galaxies) will col-
on the future of the universe. With cosmologist lapse into a single enormous supercluster of
Glenn Starkman of Case Western Reserve Uni- stars. All the other galaxies will disappear into
versity, Krauss explored the implications for the the oblivion beyond the event horizon. This
fate of life in a universe with a cosmological process takes about 100 billion years, which
constant. The prognosis: not good. Such a uni- may seem long but is fairly short compared to
verse becomes a very inhospitable place. The the wilderness of eternity.


The universe may be infinite, but consider what happens to the patch of space
around us (purple sphere), of which we see only a part (yellow inner sphere).
As space expands, galaxies (orange spots) spread out. As light has time
to propagate, we observers on Earth (or our predecessors or descendants)
can see a steadily increasing volume of space. About six billion years ago,
the expansion began to accelerate, carrying distant galaxies away
from us faster than light.

Observable region
Lawrence M. Krauss (right) and
Robert J. Scherrer (left) began
working together two years ago,
when Krauss spent a sabbatical
year at Vanderbilt University and
came to know every honky-tonk in
Nashville. Krauss is a cosmologist
at Case Western Reserve Universi-
ty and director of its Center for Region of
Education and Research in Cosmol-
ogy and Astrophysics. He is the ●
1 At the onset of acceleration,
we see the largest number of
author of seven books and an
galaxies that we ever will.
activist for the public understand-
ing of science. Scherrer is a

2 The visible region grows, but the
overall universe grows even faster,
cosmologist, chair of the Depart- so we actually see a smaller
ment of Physics and Astronomy NOTE: fraction of what is out there. ●
3 Distant galaxies (those not bound to
at Vanderbilt and a published Because space is expanding us by gravity) move out of our range of
science-fiction author. They both uniformly, alien beings in other view. Meanwhile, gravity pulls nearby
enjoy doing cosmology while there galaxies see this same pattern. galaxies together.
is still time left.

48 S C I E N T I F I C A M E R I C A N March 2008
Collapsing Pillars In 100 billion made clear, Einstein’s equations predict that an
What will astronomers of the far future, living infinite, homogeneous, static universe is impos-
in this supercluster, conclude about the history years, Hubble’s sible. The universe has to expand or contract.
of the universe? To think about this question, From this realization, the big bang theory, as it
recall the pillars on which our current under-
crucial discov- would later be called, was born.
standing of the big bang is based. ery of the The next pillar came in the 1920s, when
The first is Einstein’s general theory of relativ- astronomers detected the expansion of the uni-
ity. For nearly 300 years Newton’s theory of uni-
expanding verse. The fi rst person to provide observational
versal gravitation served as the basis for almost universe evidence for expansion was American astrono-
all of astronomy. Newton’s theory does an excel- mer Vesto Slipher, who used the spectra of stars
lent job of predicting the motions of objects on
will become to measure the velocities of nearby galaxies.
scales from the terrestrial to the galactic, but it irreproducible. Waves of light from a star moving toward Earth
is completely incapable of dealing with infinitely are compressed, shortening the wavelength and
large collections of matter. General relativity making the light bluer. Light waves from an
overcomes this limitation. Shortly after Einstein object moving away from us are stretched,
published the theory in 1916, Dutch physicist making the wavelength longer and the light
Willem de Sitter solved the equations of general redder. By measuring the lengthening or com-
relativity for a simplified universe incorporating pression of the light waves from distant galax-
Einstein’s cosmological constant. De Sitter’s ies, Slipher was able to determine whether they
work appeared to reproduce the prevailing view were moving toward us or away from us and at
of the universe at the time: an island galaxy what speed. (At the time, astronomers were not
embedded in a largely empty, static void. even sure whether the fuzzy patches of light
Cosmologists soon realized that the stasis that we call “galaxies” were actually indepen-
was a misinterpretation. In fact, the de Sitter uni- dent bodies of stars or simply gas clouds inside
verse is eternally expanding. As Belgian physicist our own galaxy.) Slipher found that almost all
Georges Lemaître later these galaxies were moving away from us. We
seemed to be sitting at the center of a runaway
The person who is generally credited for dis-
covering the expansion of the universe is not
Slipher but American astronomer Edwin Hub-
ble. (When was the last time you read about the
Slipher Space Telescope?) Hubble determined
not just the velocities of nearby galaxies but also
their distances. His measurements led to two
conclusions that justify his fame. First, Hubble
showed that galaxies were so far away that they
really were independent collections of stars, just
like our own galaxy. Second, he discovered a
simple relation between the distance to galaxies
and their velocities. The velocity was directly
proportional to its distance from us: a galaxy
twice as far away as another was moving twice
as fast. This relation between distance and
velocity is exactly what happens when the uni-
verse is expanding. Hubble’s measurements
have since been refi ned, most recently by the
observations of distant supernovae, which led
to the discovery of dark energy.
The third pillar is the faint glow of the cosmic
microwave background, discovered serendipi-
tously in 1965 by Bell Labs physicists Arno Pen-

4 Eventually all we see is
zias and Robert Wilson as they tracked down
one supergalaxy and an
unbridgeable void. sources of radio interference. This radiation was
quickly recognized to be a relic left over from the

w w w. S c i A m . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 49
The accelerating cosmic expansion is beginning to undermine the three observational pillars of the big bang
theory: the motion of galaxies away from one another, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the
relative quantities of light chemical elements such as hydrogen and helium.


TODAY all three pillars are prominent. We see dis- BILLIONS OF YEARS LATER nearby galaxies have
tant galaxies recede from us (red arrows) as near- merged and distant ones have receded from
by ones pull tighter (blue); background radiation view. The background radiation is undetect-
suffuses space; and cosmic gas largely retains ably dilute. Multiple generations of stars have
the chemical mix produced early in the big bang. contaminated the original chemical mix.

COSMIC AMNESIA early stages of the expansion of the universe. It what we see today: the stars of our galaxy. The
The current accelerating indicates that the universe began hot and dense largest and brightest stars will have burned up
cosmic expansion is not the and has since cooled and thinned out. their nuclear fuel, but plenty of smaller stars
only way that the universe The fi nal observational pillar of the big bang will still light up the night sky. The big differ-
destroys records of its past.
is that the hot, dense early universe was a per- ence will occur when these future scientists
fect location for nuclear fusion. When the tem- build telescopes capable of detecting galaxies
perature of the universe was one billion to 10 outside our own. They won’t see any! The near-
Expansion probably accelerated
billion kelvins, lighter nuclei could fuse into by galaxies will have merged with the Milky
early in cosmic history as well,
erasing almost all traces of the heavier nuclei, a process known as big bang Way to form one large galaxy, and essentially all
preexisting universe, including nucleosynthesis. This process can occur for only the other galaxies will be long gone, having
whatever transpired at the big a few minutes as the universe expands and cools, escaped beyond the event horizon.
bang itself. so fusion was limited to the lightest elements. The disappearance of distant galaxies is not
Most of the helium in the universe was pro- immediate but gradual. The redshift of these
BLACK HOLES duced then, as was deuterium, or heavy hydro- galaxies becomes infinitely large as they
These cosmic sinkholes swallow gen. The measured abundances of helium and approach the horizon. Krauss and Starkman
not only things but also the infor- deuterium match the predictions of big bang calculated that this redshift will exceed 5,000
mation those things embody. This nucleosynthesis, providing further evidence for for all galaxies by 100 billion years, rising to an
information may be lost forever.
the theory as well as an accurate estimate of unfathomable 1053 by 10 trillion years — at
the abundance of protons and neutrons in the which time even the highest-energy cosmic rays
universe. will have redshifted so much that their wave-
Whenever we measure a quantum
length will be larger than the horizon size.
system, we typically force it into
a particular state, erasing Dark Skies These objects will then be truly and completely
evidence of the many possible What will the scientists of the future see as they invisible to us.

configurations the object may peer into the skies 100 billion years from now? As a result, Hubble’s crucial discovery of the
have been occupying. Without telescopes, they will see pretty much expanding universe will become irreproducible.

50 S C I E N T I F I C A M E R I C A N March 2008
All the expanding matter in the universe will then, the subtle patterns in this background
have visually disappeared beyond the horizon,
If this article radiation, which have provided so much useful
and everything remaining will be part of a grav- survives in an information to today’s cosmologists, will become
itationally bound cluster of stars. For these too muted to study.
future astronomers, the observable universe
archive, it might
will closely resemble the “island universe” of be the only way Burning Up
1908: a single enormous collection of stars, stat- Would observations of the abundances of chem-
ic and eternal, surrounded by empty space.
future civiliza- ical elements lead cosmologists of the distant
Our own experience demonstrates that even tions will know future to a knowledge of the big bang? Once
when we have data, the correct cosmological again, the answer is likely to be no. The prob-
model is not so obvious. For example, from the
about the big lem is that our ability to probe big bang nucleo-
1940s to the mid-1960s, with the edifice of bang. Whether synthesis hinges on the fact that the abundances
observational cosmology resting only on Hub- of deuterium and helium have not evolved very
ble’s discovery of the expanding universe, some
they will believe much since they were produced 14 billion years
astrophysicists resurrected the idea of an eter- it is another ago. Helium produced in the early universe, for
nal universe: the steady-state universe, in which example, makes up about 24 percent of the total
matter is created as the universe expands, so
question. matter. Although stars produce helium in the
that the universe as a whole does not really course of their fusion reactions, they have
change with time. This idea proved to be an intel- increased this abundance by no more than a few
lectual dead end, but it does demonstrate the percent. Astronomers Fred Adams and Gregory
kind of mistaken notion that can develop in the Laughlin of the University of Michigan at Ann
absence of adequate observational data. Arbor have suggested that this fraction could
Where else might astronomers of the future increase to as much as 60 percent after many
search for evidence of the big bang? Would the generations of stars. An observer in the distant
cosmic microwave background allow them to future would find the primordial helium
probe the dynamics of the universe? Alas, no. swamped by the helium produced in later gen-
As the universe expands, the wavelengths of the erations of stars.
background radiation stretch and the radiation Currently the cleanest probe of big bang
becomes more diffuse. When the universe is 100 LOSING THE nucleosynthesis is the abundance of deuterium.
billion years old, the peak wavelengths of the CHEMICAL CLUES Our best measurements of the primordial deu-
microwave radiation will be on the scale of terium abundance come from observations of
The universe consists almost
meters, corresponding to radio waves instead of hydrogen clouds backlit by quasars, extremely
entirely of hydrogen and helium
microwaves. The intensity of the radiation will produced in the first three min-
distant and bright beacons thought to be pow-
be diluted by a factor of one trillion and might utes of the big bang. Stars have ered by black holes. In the far future of the uni-
never be seen. converted some of the hydrogen verse, however, both these hydrogen clouds and
Even further into the future, the cosmic back- to helium, but not much — yet. quasars will have passed beyond the event hori-
ground will become truly unobservable. The The relative quantities of these zon and will be forever lost to view. Only galac-
space between stars in our galaxy is filled with elements have been an essential tic deuterium might be observable. But stars
an ionized gas of electrons. Low-frequency observational clue to the big destroy deuterium, and little will survive. Even
radio waves cannot penetrate such a gas; they bang. In the future, as stars con- if astronomers of the future observe deuterium,
are absorbed or reflected. A similar effect is the tinue to convert material, that they might not ascribe it to the big bang. Nucle-
will no longer be the case.
reason that AM radio stations can be picked up ar reactions involving high-energy cosmic rays,
far from their cities of origin at night; the radio ■ Hydrogen ■ Helium which have been studied today as a possible
waves reflect off the ionosphere and back down ■ Elements heavier than helium source of at least some of the observed deuteri-
to the ground. The interstellar medium can be um, might seem more plausible.
thought of as one big ionosphere fi lling the gal-
Big Bang (+ a few minutes) Although the observational abundance of
axy. Any radio waves with frequencies below 76% 24% light elements will not provide any direct evi-
about one kilohertz (a wavelength of greater dence for a fiery big bang, it will nonetheless
than 300 kilometers) cannot penetrate into our Present Day 2% make one aspect of future cosmology different
galaxy. Radio astronomy below one kilohertz from the illusory cosmology of a century ago.
is forever impossible inside our galaxy. When 70% 28% Astronomers and physicists who develop an
the universe is about 25 times its present age, understanding of nuclear physics will correctly

the microwave background will be stretched 1 Trillion Years conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they
beyond this wavelength and become undetect- 60% then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium
20% 20%
able to the residents of the galaxy. Even before they observe was produced in earlier genera-

w w w. S c i A m . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 51
The night sky on Earth (assuming it survives) will change dramatically as our Milky Way galaxy merges with its neighbors and distant galaxies recede beyond view.


DIFFUSE BAND stretching across the sky is the disk of the Milky Way. ANDROMEDA has been moving toward us and now nearly
A few nearby galaxies, such as Andromeda and the Magellanic fills the sky. The sun swells to red giant size and subse-
Clouds, are visible to the naked eye. Telescopes reveal billions more. quently burns out, consigning Earth to a bleak existence.

tions of stars, they will be able to place an upper Alone in the Void
limit on the age of the universe. These scientists Is there no way at all for our descendants to per-
COSMIC will thus correctly infer that their galactic uni- ceive an expanding universe? One telltale effect
verse is not eternal but has a fi nite age. Yet the of acceleration would indeed remain within our
MILESTONES origin of the matter they observe will remain observational horizon, at least according to our
10 –30 second shrouded in mystery. current understanding of general relativity. Just
Cosmic inflation occurs What about the idea with which we began as the event horizon of a black hole emits radia-
100 seconds this article, namely that Einstein’s theory of rel- tion, so, too, does our cosmological event hori-
Deuterium and helium are created ativity predicts an expanding universe and zon. Yet the temperature associated with this
400,000 years therefore a big bang? The denizens of the far radiation is unmeasurably small, about 10 –30
Microwave background is released future of the universe should be able to discover kelvin. Even if astronomers were able to detect
8 billion years the theory of general relativity from precision it, they would probably attribute it to some oth-
Expansion begins to accelerate measurements of gravity in their own solar sys- er, far larger local source of noise.
tem. Using this theory to infer a big bang, how- Ambitious future observers might also send
13.7 billion years ever, rests on observations about the large-scale out probes that escape the supergalaxy and
structure of the universe. Einstein’s theory pre- could serve as reference points for detecting a
20 billion years dicts an expanding universe only if the universe possible cosmic expansion. Whether it would
Milky Way and Andromeda collide
is homogeneous. The universe that our descen- occur to them to do so seems unlikely, but in any
100 billion years dants survey will be anything but homogeneous. event it would take billions of years at the very
All other galaxies are invisible It will consist of an island of stars embedded in least for the probe to reach the point where the
1 trillion years a vast emptiness. It will, in fact, resemble de Sit- expansion noticeably affected its velocity, and
Primordial isotopes are lost ter’s island universe. The ultimate future of the the probe would need the energy output compa-
or diluted observable universe is to collapse into a black rable to that of a star to communicate back to

100 trillion years hole, precisely what will in fact occur to our gal- its builders from such a great distance. That the
Last star burns out axy in the distant future. science-funding agencies of the future would

52 S C I E N T I F I C A M E R I C A N March 2008

SUCCESSOR to the Milky Way is a ball-like supergalaxy, LIGHTS OUT: The last stars burn out. Apart from dimly glowing black
and Earth may float forlornly through its distant outskirts. holes and any artificial lighting that civilizations have rigged up,
Other galaxies have disappeared from view. the universe goes black. The galaxy later collapses into a black hole.

support such a shot-in-the-dark is unlikely, at by George Gale; Scientific American, Decem-
least if our own experience is any guide. ber 1981]. We take different lessons from our
Thus, observers of the future are likely to work. EXPLORE
predict that the universe ultimately ends with a First, this would quite likely not be the fi rst Life, the Universe and Nothing:
localized big crunch, rather than the eternal time that information about the universe would Life and Death in an Ever-
expansion that the cosmological constant pro- be lost because of an accelerating expansion. If Expanding Universe. Lawrence
duces. Instead of a whimper, their limited uni- a period of inflation occurred in the very early Krauss and Glenn Starkman in
Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 531,
verse will end with a bang. universe, then the rapid expansion during this No. 22, pages 22–30; March 2000.
We are led inexorably to a very strange con- era drove away almost all details of the preex- Available at
clusion. The window during which intelligent isting matter and energy out of what is now our astro-ph/9902189
observers can deduce the true nature of our observable universe. Indeed, one of the original
expanding universe might be very short indeed. motivations for inflationary models was to rid The Five Ages of the Universe:
Inside the Physics of Eternity.
Some civilizations might hold on to deep histor- the universe of pesky cosmological objects such Fred C. Adams and Greg Laughlin.
ical archives, and this very article might appear as magnetic monopoles that may once have Free Press, 2000.
in one — if it can survive billions of years of wars, existed in profusion.
supernovae, black holes and countless other More important, although we are certainly Atom: A Single Oxygen Atom’s
perils. Whether they will believe it is another fortunate to live at a time when the observation- Journey from the Big Bang to Life
on Earth … and Beyond. Lawrence
question. Civilizations that lack such archives al pillars of the big bang are all detectable, we M. Krauss. Back Bay Books, 2002.
might be doomed to remain forever ignorant of can easily envisage that other fundamental
the big bang. aspects of the universe are unobservable today. The Return of a Static Universe
Why is the present universe so special? Many What have we already lost? Rather than being and the End of Cosmology.
researchers have tried to argue that the exis- self-satisfied, we should feel humble. Perhaps Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J.
Scherrer in Journal of General Relativ-
tence of life provides a selection effect that someday we will fi nd that our current careful ity and Gravitation, Vol. 39, No. 10,
might explain the coincidences associated with and apparently complete understanding of the pages 1545–1550; October 2007.
the present time [see “The Anthropic Principle,” universe is seriously wanting. ■

w w w. S c i A m . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 53