Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Sad, Inevitable Ignorance of Future Alien Civilizations

There was a time when we believed the entire universe was the Milky Way galaxy. And in time, for future inhabitants of our galaxy, this will really be the case.

Of course, that depends on your definition of "real." If by "real" you mean a fact that can be scientifically proven, then yes, the Milky Way (or some form of it) will be all its future civilizations will know of.

Sound incredible? It certainly is. And this intractable devolution of intelligent life's understanding of the universe is at the heart of a recent Scientific American article, "
The End of Cosmology?" by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

Given how close we exist to the origin of the (known) universe, Krauss and Scherrer argue that, "we may be living in the only epoch in the history of the universe when scientists can achieve an accurate understanding of the true nature of the universe."

The reason is the increasing speed with which galaxies (being shoved by dark energy) are moving away from each other. If this continues, which there's no reason to believe it wont, each galaxy will be so far apart in 100 billion years that they will not be able to detect each other.

This is not good since observation of an expanding universe was the foundation of the big bang theory. This expansion was also the basis for our detection of dark energy. But without other galaxies to observe, how will future civilizations know there was a big bang or know there's dark energy?

Who cares about dark energy? Well, it makes up 70 percent of the universe's energy. So it's pretty important. If not at the moment, it will mean something in the future. Consider this. For interstellar or intergalactic travelers, light years from the nearest star, they may rely on dark energy to power their engines. Without such knowledge, future civilizations may be limited to their own solar systems (kind of like we are, which is a real bummer).

Back to the future. Without an understanding of the big bang, how the universe (we know) began, future civilizations will have no (accurate) way of explaining the balance or origin of elements in the universe (like helium), explain Krauss and Scherrer.

Furthermore, civilizations in 100 billion years won't be able to explain the abundance of protons and neutrons, or the "cosmic microwave background." In fact, they may come up with wrong explanations and conclusions about these things; inaccuracies that should stunt their scientific development.

One wrong conclusion they'll probably make is how the universe ends. According to Krauss and Scherrer, "observers of the future are likely to predict that the universe ultimately ends with a localized big crunch, rather than eternal expansion." Indeed, their galaxy will end that way, but the universe (at that time, the dissipating remains of the galaxies we now know) will keep expanding away from each other. Eventually, Pound360 wonders, will the universe be little more than a hundred (or so) billion black holes pushing away from each other, faster and faster?

That's one possibility, but regular Pound360 readers may recall an "
incredibly strange" post where we examined how galaxies may eventually be moving apart so quickly that new universes could be born in their wakes. Yes, that sounds completely crazy. No, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Read the aforementioned post after you finish this one.

The only hope for future civilizations to avoid being "doomed to remain forever ignorant of the big bang" is to probe ancient archives, suggest Krauss and Scherrer. They're talking seriously ancient archives. Billions-of-years-old archives. And billions-of-times lucky ones. They would need to "survive billions of years of wars, supernovae, black holes and countless other perils."

Maybe future civilizations will stumble across one of the
frozen planets Pound360 predicted may wander interstellar space, those where ancient civilizations once stood. Perhaps they will explore an ancient archive, preserved for billions of years under thick black ice, and then decipher the long-lost civilization's storage technology and interpret their language.

Another fascinating possibility raised by Krauss and Scherrer is this. While future civilizations may live in a reality that makes it impossible to understand the nature of the universe, we may very well be in the same position. Krauss and Scherrer wonder, "What have we already lost?" If, for example, we exist in a "universe" born in the wake of expanding galaxies (as described earlier). We'd have no way of scientifically proving it. Thus, what we are able to explain as the beginning of the universe, isn't really the beginning of the universe at all.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.