This is the last post in our big history series. It follows the structure of the course developed by historian David Christian. This post will explore the future of the universe.
The story so far
(adjusted scale: The big bang to today condensed into 13 years)
About 13 years ago, unknown conditions set off the Big Bang. This produced space, time, energy, and matter (mainly hydrogen and helium). The universe was born.
About 36 days later, cooling and tiny variations in the density of matter allowed gravity to bring together hydrogen and helium into high pressure clumps. Stars were born.
High temperatures within those stars, along with supernova explosions, allowed for the synthesis of every other element on the periodic table. Chemistry was born.
As new stars formed around chemically rich clouds, solar systems formed. About 4.3 years ago, the Earth formed.
About 3.5 years ago, unknown conditions led to the first prokaryote. Life was born. About 85 days ago, the first mammals evolved from a branch of reptiles loosely relating birds.
About 1.6 hours ago, Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa. Our powerful brains and symbolic language allowed us to share ideas very efficiently. Collective learning was developed.
About 4.9 seconds ago, population growth and accumulated knowledge led to the development of agriculture. Agriculture led to even greater population growth, which fed back into even greater knowledge accumulation.
About 0.09 seconds ago, globalization and new energy sources allowed for a globally connected human society. Today, billions of people around the world are sharing information instantaneously.
Reversing the progress (same time scale)
In about 2 hours, it’s likely that a super-volcano will erupt on our planet and cause massive destruction. In about 34 days, it’s likely that an extinction sized asteroid will collide with our planet. In about 4 years, our sun will swell up and destroy the earth (if it hasn’t already been destroyed for an interstellar highway). In about 200 years, dark energy will accelerate the expansion of the universe passed the speed of light, causing the night sky to get a lot darker. In about 100,000 years, the last star will burn out. In about 1090 years, entropy will win out and everything complex in the universe will come to an end.
From a bunch of hydrogen atoms, to a vast globally connected human society, back to a cold dark void – matter is never created nor destroyed, just reorganized. Luckily, that cold dark void is still trillions of trillions of trillions of years away. At that scale, the universe is still in the first moments of its existence. Complexity still has room to run.
The near future
Counter-intuitively, the near future is much harder to predict than the deep future. We could destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, global warming could make life on earth unsustainable, Terminators could rise up to overthrow us, a pandemic could wipe us out, aliens could build that interstellar highway through us, or we could build a interplanetary society free of conflict, disease, and prejudice. In 200 years, we went from muscle power to nuclear fission. Who knows what the next 200 years will bring.
We study history to gain perspective on the world around us. We try to explain where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Big history tells the story of a Universe appearing, stars forming complex chemicals, complex chemicals forming life, and life developing collective knowledge. What happens next depends on what we do with that knowledge. As Douglas Adams said:
Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.