We’re almost 100% sure that you have many, many other problems to be dealing with at the moment. Like your taxes or basically anything else. Mostly because the universe will definitely last longer than not only us, but Earth as well. That includes the solar system in its entirety as well. But hey, you asked, so let’s have a fireside chat of sorts. When is the universe going to end?
Here’s the inherent problem with the question–it’s impossible to say when the universe will end. Depending on which theories you run with, the universe as we know it could straight up end before you finish reading this post. As it stands, the universe itself is probably just shy of 14 billion years old. We’re operating in a system of numbers so big people can’t really comprehend them–it reaches a point where it’s just abstract. Heck, the Sun probably has 5 billion years left, and that’s an infinitely more pressing issue than the universe ending.
When Will the Universe End?
The Big Rip, Big Crunch, & Big Bounce
So, fun fact, the Big Bang is more than just a TV show. It’s the theory that when the universe started there was in essence a huge cosmic explosion. A bang so big, that the universe is still expanding today. Except here’s the thing, the universe is not only still expanding, but it’s expanding faster. Nobody really knows why, just that this is probably the case. One of the leading theories is dark energy, but that doesn’t really mean that we know exactly how it works.
But that’s neither here nor there, the point is the universe is expanding faster. That means a handful of things. One of them is the Big Rip–which means the universe basically expands forever until it tears itself apart. Down to each individual atom.
The Big Crunch operates on the exact opposite principle. One day, the universe may stop expanding. Instead, it may end up contracting until everything collapses and folds in on itself. We end up back where we started before the Big Bang. Morbid, but at least there’s some hope in the Big Bounce. That idea holds under a Big Crunch scenario, another Big Bang occurs. Which puts us in a cycle wherein the universe effectively resets itself.
The Big Chill
The Big Chill, like the Big Rip, also assumes the continued expansion of the universe. It’s basically Heat Death, and if it holds true, it would render the universe unlivable in 10^14 years. Which is 10, followed by 14 zeros. We’re approaching quadrillion numbers with that many years. At this time, stars wouldn’t form anymore, and eventually everything would just decay from there. We’ve commented on it a lot before, but everything in the universe tends to the lowest-energy state. Because the universe is as lazy as we are.
Anyway, the idea of the Big Chill is that the universe eventually reaches a state of lowest energy where everything is this kind of photon soup. Then the photons would decay, reaching that point, in theory would be around 10^34 years. That’s 10 followed by 34 zeros. That’s almost 4 billion billions. Except this number is probably way off.
It’s off because black holes would eat everything by that point and then decay via Hawking radiation. Which is a lot of physics, but basically black holes don’t last forever. So we’re actually on a timescale of 10^100 years. A number so big, it has its own Wikipedia page.
Alright, think about physics. Now think about how complicated physics as a subject is. Now, remember that our current understanding of physics is basically an accumulation of knowledge over the entire lifespan of the human race.
So, imagine a scenario where our understanding of physics is so wrong it ends the universe. Well, in all honesty that’s not how vacuum decay works. It operates under the idea of quantum tunneling. It’s essentially this “what if” scenario where what we think is the relative lowest energy state of something isn’t actually the lowest energy state.
If our understanding of thermodynamics is wrong, and things have a far lower energy state than we thought, then we have vacuum decay. Should a particle find this hypothetical energy state, it will then release all the energy it had held up (energy that theoretically didn’t exist). By releasing that energy, it pushes all the particles around it as well, and they begin to release all of their energy in a similar fashion.
What does that mean for us? Well it would create an ever expanding bubble, that’s expanding at the speed of light. Inside this bubble is a realm of everything in the actual lowest energy state, a realm where physics as we know it ceases to exist. This is something that would upend not only our fundamental understanding of the universe, but you know, kill us all. Life is incompatible with the inside of this vacuum bubble–since you know–we exist in a non-zero energy state.
Someone Unplugs the Simulation
You might think we’re playing this for giggles, but it’s entirely possible that we all exist in a simulation, ala The Matrix. It’s not possible to actually simulate the universe as we understand it, but given that there are many parts of the universe humanity will never reach. Those boundaries obviously wouldn’t be simulated. Kind of like how out-of-bounds in a video game works. It looks like it exists, but it doesn’t really.
If you assume it’s possible to simulate consciousness, along with some other things, we’re more likely than not simulated beings. Granted, we don’t exactly know what consciousness is or how it works, but we do know that we probably can’t simulate it with technology we’ll develop anytime soon. But if we assume that technology can develop to that point, and that civilizations (like ours) don’t destroy themselves, they’ll eventually reach a point where they could generate a simulation.
A civilization capable of that would basically be a race of gods to us tiny-brained-hairless-monkeys, so we also have to assume they’re interested in even running simulations. But uh, if they are, we’re probably simulated. In which case, the universe would end if some god-alien tripped on the power cable.
So uh, enjoy that existential crisis.
Well, at least The Big Bang Theory show doesn’t have as many existential crises in it. Take a quiz on it to take the load off here.