Friday, March 21, 2008

Cold and Dark

A musing on chaos and entropy ...

The three rules of thermodynamics, simplified, by Ben Bova:

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.

3. You can't get out of the game.

Okay, a short history of, and forecast for, The Universe. For the purposes of this exercise, I will leave out God(s) and religion. Yeah, I know, but that's the set-up.

First, we have the itty-bitty point. Not a Big Bang, because a) it was itty-bitty, and B) there wasn't any sound because there wasn't any medium to carry it. Call it the Sudden Quiet Flash.

Expanding, expanding, e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g ...

Into what? Never mind, that'll just boggle your brain. Expanding into something.

Energy and matter do their cosmic dance, switch places, woof and warp. Fourteen billion years, more or less; stars, planets, galaxies, dust, nebulae, dark this, visible that, and and and

You Are Here.

Fast forward. Nobody's quite sure of the time, but for the sake of argument, let's call it another trillion trillion years. (One theory says that by observing it, we hasten its death. Sucking up those photons, might cut it short a few minutes.) Stars use up their fuel, wink out. Not enough matter to stop the expansion, and anyway, all matter goes to energy. White dwarves collapse into black holes and eventually, even the black holes evaporate. Someone left the cake out in the rain ...

Everything gets really, really cold and really, really, dark, and the Universe sighs, entropy rules, and that's it. Not even a whimper -- no medium to carry the sound ...


Not a thing we can do about it. Cold, dark, nobody home, no home, either. Unless we find a hidden back door into a parallel place with similar physics -- and good luck with that -- or God decides to build a new watch and wind that one up, it's game over, oh, my. Sure, it might be a trillion trillion years and all, but it's all finite.

George Harrison's song was right: All things must pass.

Meanwhile, we live lives of chaos, because that's the state of the place. You can't control any of it, the center cannot hold, it whirls, it whirls, so why bother? Go with the flow ...

Of course, the entire length of human history has been mostly dedicated to trying to control things -- an attempt to lay bridges over the chasms of chaos. We sort, we lump, we calculate, and we strive to impose order. Always have, it's our nature. Some of us accept the chaos and shrug. Most of us fight the good fight.

I can't take the long view -- all those trillions of years. (Old joke: In astronomy class, the professor says, "So, the sun will go nova and destroy itself and our solar system in ten billion years -- "

A panicky student interrupts: "What!? What did you say!?"

"I said that Sol will go nova in ten billion years."

The student blows out a sigh of relief. "Oh. Ten billion. I thought for a second there you said 'ten million ...'")

I mean, if it all comes to nothing, then what's the point?

Well, for me, it's the little segment I get to live, and how I do it.

The concept of time might mean nothing, but if the grandkids need to be picked up at school at two p.m. and I am not a time-binder, they get to stand in the cold waiting. Of course, you might allow as how we all will be standing in the cold eventually, but I can't fix that. I can try to impose enough order on the chaos to be parked outside when the bell rings. Might not be able to, shit happens, but I will make the effort.

Saying "Shit happens." is not nearly as useful in my mind as trying to avoid letting shit happen, if't I can fix ...

Yep, we walk on shifting sands, all things must pass, and control is mostly beyond us. And sometimes, you gotta go with the flow and know that chaos will get you. But you can at least watch where you put your feet, and if you see the elephant charging, try to get out of its way.

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