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The End Isn’t Near

by bdietrich on December 20, 2012

Despite the turn of the Mayan calendar, I’m betting the world won’t end Friday, Dec. 21. Tickets to Hawaii.

Why the optimism? Predictions of an imminent end go back to Biblical times and are so common that “The End Is Near” has become a cartoon staple. I covered one fundamentalist prediction in the 1970s as a young reporter. When the sun rose anyway there was not just befuddlement, but disappointment, among the bilked believers of the sect.

No rapture, no fireworks. Just the same old problems, possibilities, and the April 15 income tax deadline. Dang.

It would be flattering to think the final curtain would ring down during our own brief lifetimes, but I bought my Hawaii tickets with the cheerful knowledge that it’s unlikely, given my own utter insignificance.

There certainly would be plenty of spectators to watch the apocalypse. There are over 7 billion people in the world today, a number difficult to grasp even in Cairo or Tokyo. If you assume the Woodstock rock festival attracted half a million festival-goers, there are enough people alive to fill 14,118 Woodstocks.

That’s a lot of folks to erase.

Yet you could name a star in our Milky Way galaxy for every person alive today and have hundreds of billions of stars left over.

That’s a lot of stuff to put an end to.

In fact, you could name a star for every human who has ever lived – about 108 billion, by the estimate of the Population Reference Bureau – and still have about 100 billion to 300 billion Milky Way suns left over. (No one has had time to count that high, so these numbers are estimates based on small samples of the sky.)

All this ends tomorrow?

Our galaxy, of course, is just one of many. How many? Estimates range from a low of 100 billion galaxies (each with its own hundreds of billions of stars) in the observable universe to 500 billion (by a German supercomputer estimate) to well over a trillion (taking into account the universe we can’t see.)

Then there are the cosmic theories that ours is but one of countless universe-es, which keep banging into being all the time.

The unlikelihood of seeing this disappear tomorrow is reinforced by the age of the universe, currently estimated at 13.75 billion years since the Big Bang.

That’s another unimaginable number, so let’s convert it to a 24-hour clock. In this thought experiment, the universe began at midnight and after 24 hours of existence we’ve come round to midnight again.

On that scale, how long is a 79-year lifespan?

Less than one/2000th of one second in that 24-hour history of the universe.

Yes, I like to think I’m the center of existence. But the grand finale comes in my particular 2000th of a second of cosmic time?

My timing has never been that good.

One sign that things are likely to go on are pictures of ongoing stellar destruction and formation in distant gas clouds, suggesting that Creation isn’t quite done. For spectacular recent pictures, try http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/bad_astronomy/2012/12/best_astronomy_images_2012_see_the_most_beautiful_images_of_the_universe.html.

In ancient times when our world was all there was, at the center of the universe, an “end of the world” could be visualized.

Today, I’m visualizing Hawaii.

And if I’m wrong, this blog posting won’t really matter.

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