Episode 29: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct, Episode 29
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the meaning of science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:13] And we have an amazing guest today. This is Katie Mack. Hello. Welcome to the show.
Katie: [00:00:18] Thank you.
Annalee: [00:00:19] She’s an astrophysicist. You may have already heard her talking about her work on Twitter and her many public appearances. She’s a professor at North Carolina State and she studies the universe from its beginnings to its endings. And endings is our theme today. This show is Real Talk about the apocalypse. So, we’re going to be talking a little bit about how the universe itself might end in reality. And then we’re going to talk, and this is why Katie is here, to help us along, and then we’re going to talk a little bit about the small amount of science fiction about how the universe ends. And why is it that we don’t talk about that very much and when we do, what do we say about it?
[00:01:03] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:31] I just want to say this is our very first time ever doing a live podcast and so—
Live Audience: [00:01:36] Woo!
Annalee: [00:01:38] —here we are on the JoCo Cruise, the ship is literally rocking back and forth. So, if you guys could all make a really loud cheer that we can pick up on the recording, do it now.
Live Audience: [00:01:48] [LOUD CHEERS AND WOOO YEAH SCREAMS]
Annalee: [00:01:56] Oh my God, you guys are the very, very—
Katie: [00:01:57] That’s fantastic.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:57] You are the best.
Annalee: [00:01:58] —very best.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:59] Oh my God, I’m so—
Katie: [00:02:01] This is excellent.
Annalee: [00:02:00] This is like a science fiction convention on a boat with like awesome music, which I don’t even… I can’t even say.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:07] They probably think it’s a music convention with science fiction, but—
Annalee: [00:02:09] Yeah, I think it really depends. Or, it’s like podcasts with like, science fiction and music. I don’t know.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:15] Anyway.
Annalee: [00:02:16] So, let’s start with the reality of the end of the universe.
Katie: [00:02:21] Yes.
Annalee: [00:02:21] So, Katie, I know that you’re working on a book about—
Katie: [00:02:24] I am.
Annalee: [00:02:24] —the end of the universe.
Katie: [00:02:24] I am, indeed.
Annalee: [00:02:26] I wanted to ask you a little bit about—I mean, I kind of wanted you to start at the beginning which is to say, the beginning of our understanding of the end. So, do you have a sense of what the first theory was about how the universe would end? Like, in the modern era. I’m not talking about like, biblical theories.
Katie: [00:02:44] So, I’m not sure what the first one was. So, for many decades there was a lot of controversy about whether or not the universe is changing with time at all. I mean, once we figured out that there was stuff beyond the solar system, that we lived in the galaxy and there are other stars and then there are other galaxies out there, the question was: How is this changing over time? Does it change over time? And so, for a long time people debated about the idea of the steady state universe where there’s… everything is kind of stable and maybe there’s expansion, but there’s more matter being created all the time and everything kind of stays in this stable configuration. And that was rejected pretty soundly after a while and it became known that the universe was expanding. And then once you know the universe is expanding, the question is: does it keep going or does it turn around?
Annalee: [00:03:35] So, when did we—when did scientists kind of accept that the universe was expanding?
Katie: [00:03:39] It was during Einstein’s time. So, when he first wrote down his theories of relativity, he didn’t know that the universe was expanding and so he put in some terms to keep the universe stable. To keep it from collapsing on itself because the idea was… like, he knew that gravity happens and that galaxies pull toward each other and so he figured out very quickly that if gravity happens and the universe is just sitting still, it should just collapse on itself, like, immediately. So, he put in a term in his equations to kind of hold everything up, like, some kind of scaffolding to keep everything from falling in. And then the universe’s expansion was discovered, and then it was like, oh, okay, we don’t need this extra stuff to hold everything together, the universe is expanding, and then for a long time the question was is it going to keep going and expanding or is it going to fall back?
[00:04:25] And there was a time when falling back was the likely scenario based on the data. So the big crunch was what people thought would happen, and so there’s some amazing papers from, I think, like the ‘60s talking about the big crunch and what’s going to happen when the expansion turns around and all the galaxies come rushing toward us and everything is on fire.
So, that was really fun. So, I’ve been reading about that stuff as background for my book and it’s really fun to think about like… People just thought, oh yeah, at some point in the future, the whole universe is going to collapse on us and we just have to be cool with that.
Annalee: [00:05:03] So, basically what we’re talking about is early 20th century, we realized everything was expanding, and then mid-century we start to fear everything will be crushed in fire.
Katie: [00:05:12] Yes. Yeah, yeah. And then it wasn’t until like, the 1990s that it was discovered that the expansion is not only going fast enough to keep us from collapsing again, it’s actually accelerating and so now the most likely thing seems to be that the expansion will keep going and it’ll go faster and faster and everything will be sort of separated and cold and empty and lonely and everything will sort of decay and die out and that’s called the heat death. It’s a lot less dramatic than, you know, than the everything is on fire scenario, but it’s also really sad. So… and it makes for much less interesting science fiction, I think. For the most part.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:53] Oh.
Katie: [00:05:53] So, there are lots of different possibilities. There’s one, I guess we’ll talk about later called Vacuum Decay, which is really fun.
Annalee: [00:05:58] Oh yeah, we’re getting to that.
Katie: [00:05:59] Yeah, yeah.
Annalee: [00:05:59] That’s my favorite.
Katie: [00:06:01] The understanding of the end of the universe has been constantly kind of changing and at the moment there’s a reasonably large consensus that the heat death is the most likely one, but there are still many other possibilities, which I will discuss in my book called The End of Everything. [crosstalk 00:06:16].
Charlie Jane: [00:06:16] When I was a kid I went to a planetarium show where it ended, like it had all the cool stars and galaxies and everything. And it ended with the heat death of the universe and I was so traumatized. Like seven year old Charlie Jane was like, “No! There’s no point in anything!” I was like crying.
Katie: [00:06:29] It’s super sad.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:29] “There’s no point in going to school, it’s all going to end.”
Katie: [00:06:32] Yeah, no, it’s super sad because as the expansion goes faster and faster you stop being able to see other galaxies and you start to be just more and more alone in the universe and then the stars in our own galaxy die out. And then, like, everything just kind of fades and it gets really cold. And everything is like decaying and, I mean. Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:49] That is really depressing. So, how do we know that the heat death of the universe isn’t just the beginning of another universe that comes after?
Annalee: [00:06:56] Yeah.
Katie: [00:06:56] So, we don’t… we don’t really know. So, there’s some really interesting possibilities for new beginnings in a lot of different end of universe scenarios. The one with the big crunch, people a lot of times talk about maybe there’s a bounce and so you have a kind of crunch but then that seeds another big bang in some new universe.
[00:07:17] With the heat death, it’s harder because you just have a big empty space, basically. There are some ideas where you can get like a quantum fluctuation of like a new universe just kind of popping out of the vacuum. And there’s even one, and this is super freaky, there’s even one where you have these quantum fluctuations that happen so you could have a quantum fluctuation where suddenly a tree appears. And it’s just because quantum mechanics is weird and sometimes strange things can happen. Because of the way these sort of probabilities work out, if you have a big enough universe persisting for long enough, you can have a quantum fluctuation of basically anything. And so, there’s this one idea where you have this recurrence of any configuration the universe ever has had or could have will happen again and again by random chance if you wait a long enough time.
[00:08:06] So, not only do you have a new big bang once in a while, but also you have a quantum fluctuation to this moment right now that then evolves forward into a new heat death in some very long time. So you could have—
Charlie Jane: [00:08:20] Reruns again.
Annalee: [00:08:22] I know, I was going to say it’s going to be like that Star Trek episode.
Katie: [00:08:24] Yeah, so, yeah…
Annalee: [00:08:26] That’s happened again and again, actually. Yeah.
Katie: [00:08:28] Yeah, so you end up having this recurrence and it’s wild because this was, like a nightmare thought experiment by Nietsche back in the day where he was like what if you had to live every moment of your life over and over again for eternity, wouldn’t that be awful? And then now there’s this theory that at the end of the heat death that happens. Anyway, it’s wild.
Annalee: [00:08:48] So, we would have—you’re saying we’d have to wait to the end of the heat death to have that happen or could the quantu fluction happen any time. Like, right now, we could just be reliving this again and again?
Katie: [00:08:59] So, it would be in a heat death universe. Like, it takes so long that… a heat death universe just kind of persists forever and then you can get all these quantum fluctuations. But the timeframes that we’re talking about are just unimaginable. And it’s still, people argue about whether or not this actually possible, but I think it’s a wild idea. I really like it.
Annalee: [00:09:16] But that’s our one chance for the heat death to turn into something else. Or that’s currently one of the best—
Katie: [00:09:21] Well, maybe.
Annalee: [00:09:21] —possibilities.
Katie: [00:09:23] Maybe. There’s another way. If you have, like, two parallel universes they can each have their own heat death and then collide and create a new big bang.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:31] Aw.
Annalee: [00:09:31] Aw.
Katie: [00:09:32] And then they kind of—
Annalee: [00:09:33] That’s kind of nice.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:33] That’s romantic.
Annalee: [00:09:34] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:34] It’s very romantic.
Annalee: [00:09:35] It is romantic. That’s what I’m hoping for my own heat death, is like, I reach my heat death and then I meet another heat death, and we’re like, aw… Like, let’s fall in love and have heat death sex. I don’t know what you…
Charlie Jane: [00:09:47] Oh, God…
Annalee: [00:09:48] Sorry. I mean, what does that even look like? It sounds really kind of enticing. I don’t know. Let’s talk about something else.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:56] Vacuum death. We still haven’t… it’s almost more of a—
Annalee: [00:09:57] Vacuum death. Oh my God.
Katie: [00:09:58] Vacuum decay.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:58] More about vacuum death. It sounds terrifying and it could happen at any time, right?
Katie: [00:10:02] Yeah, yeah.
Annalee: [00:10:01] It could be happening right now.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:03] It could be happening right now! We could be in the middle of vacuum death.
Annalee: [00:10:05] So, bye.
Katie: [00:10:06] So, to explain vacuum decay, I first have to say something about the Higgs field. So, you might have heard of the Higgs boson? Anybody? Cheer for the Higgs boson?
Charlie Jane: [00:10:13] Yay!
Live Audience: [00:10:14] Woo!
Annalee: [00:10:14] Woo!
Katie: [00:10:15] All right. Okay. So, the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN, it’s this particle that’s associated with something called the Higgs field which is this like, energy field that sort of pervades all of space and particles interacting with the Higgs field is how they have mass and it’s this whole thing, right?
[00:10:32] Anyway, so the Higgs field has sort of some value. Just some number that’s associated with it. It’s possible that basically that value of the Higgs field is not sort of the lowest energy configuration. Not the favored value of the Higgs field. There’s some other value the Higgs field could have that would be better in some way for—in terms of like, the universe would be more settled at that other value. Which means that our universe is like, not the most stable configuration for a universe.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:00] Nice try.
Katie: [00:11:02] So, yeah. It’s kind of like, there’s a—
Annalee: [00:11:04] So, we live in a universe that is not optimally stable right now.
Katie: [00:11:09] Right, right. It’s called metastable. And—
Annalee: [00:11:11] That explains a lot, actually.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:12] It really does.
Katie: [00:11:14] So, you can think of it kind of like… imagine you have this sort of ocean shore and in the early universe, it’s like the sea level’s really high and there’s water flowing all around. And then as the universe is cooling the water level comes down and you get this little tide pool. And then you have the sea level way below that. And you can live in this little tide pool, and that’s kind where our—we’re living in this little tide pool where you know the Higgs field is. It’s just this nice little gentle very calm state that we live in it, and it’s called our vacuum state. But that tide pool is not the most stable thing because if you have a big wave come it can wash you out into the ocean, and then you just can’t survive that. Or, you know, maybe there’s like a crack in the tide pool and everything sort of flows down. So, the way it looks based on the data is that we’re sort of in a cosmic tide pool here and there are a couple of ways we could end up in the open ocean and then not be able to survive.
[00:12:07] So, you could have some super high energy event. Much higher energy than anything that could actually happen, or you could just have the fact that the universe is fundamentally quantum mechanical and so it does this thing called quantum tunneling and so what would happen there is the Higgs field pervades all of space. At one point in space, the Higgs field could have this quantum tunneling event and change value to this better value and it would be like a little bit of water seeping through a crack in the tide pool and then as soon as that happens it’s like the dam breaks. And so, that little event would happen and it would create this bubble of what’s called the “true vacuum” that would expand outward at the speed of light or thereabouts and destroy everything in its path because the bubble wall is this super high energy stuff. And then, inside the bubble is this new kind of space where our atoms won’t hold together. Like, that kind of space is unlivable. So, this bubble expands at the speed of light, destroys everything, and then the interior of that bubble collapses in a big crunch.
[00:13:10] So, it’s very final when that happens. And that’s called vacuum decay.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:12] So, basically we’re in a tide pool of water and there’s an ocean of acid next to the tide pool of water.
Katie: [00:13:19] You could think of it that way, or we’re this like, delicate little sea anemone and then there’s these crashing waves and, you know.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:26] Wow.
Katie: [00:13:26] I mean, there’s lots of ways to think about it, yeah.
Annalee: [00:13:28] I love the idea of “true” vacuum.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:30] True vacuum.
Katie: [00:13:30] Yeah, yeah.
Annalee: [00:13:30] Like, you haven’t seen vacuum, yet.
Katie: [00:13:35] Yeah, exactly.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:35] Yeah, that is really terrifying.
Annalee: [00:13:36] You were saying earlier that this quantum event could be like a tiny little black hole. Just like the kind that I want to build for my space ship.
Katie: [00:13:44] Well, so, if you have—
Charlie Jane: [00:13:45] Be careful with that.
Katie: [00:13:45] If you have a tiny little black hole, you have to be very careful with it because if that tiny little black hole evaporates, which Hawking said it would, then that could seed vacuum decay, and that could make vacuum decay happen there for sure rather than just being this very unlikely event that could happen probabilistically at any moment but probably won’t happen for a really long time.
Annalee: [00:14:06] So, all of your science fiction where you have a space ship powered by a tiny little black hole? Which is not an insignificant number of science fiction stories? Don’t do it.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:15] Yeah. They have.
Katie: [00:14:17] It sounds cute, so.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:17] Tiny little black hole, it sounds adorable.
Annalee: [00:14:19] It’ll, like, it’ll provide you with lots of energy. It’s sustainable, except it destroys the fabric of the universe, so yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:26] You know…
Annalee: [00:14:28] That’s really bad pollution.
Katie: [00:14:28] Yeah. Yeah. Don’t do that.
[00:14:32] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:14:46] Let’s talk a little bit about the little bit of stories about the end of the universe. We were trying to compile a short list with the help of Wikipedia and even—and this is funny because Wikipedia normally when you go to search for like, every science fiction story with a particular kind of trope, it’ll be like here is a list of bllllphhb, here’s this huge long list. Sorry, the fart noise is just me, kind of. You can’t see that on the podcast, but I’m kind of gesturing, like, big void space. And that’s not that many. There’s maybe a couple dozen stories in this genre. And, I think one of the most famous that probably a lot of people have read or heard of. I mean, first of all, there’s Wrinkle in Time. Where, the darkness is destroying the universe. It’s not just destroying us, which I had forgotten, but Mary Robinette reminded me. But then, there’s Isaac Asimov’s short story, famous short story from the midcentury called “The Last Question” which is about a computer. Kind of a super-intelligent computer named Multivac. Multivac is, of course, asked, how do we stop entropy in the universe? How can it be decreased? Because they’re worried about the heat death. And so, Multivac is like, okay, let me think. Think for a long time. I’ll have a bunch of babies, because apparently Multivac has a bunch of babies and eventually Multivac’s baby is in the middle of the heat death and says, “Let there be light.” And then, there’s like, a new universe. Which is a really cheesy ending that we can talk about in a minute.
[00:16:08] But then, of course, there’s also The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, obviously.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:13] Woo!
Annalee: [00:16:15] And what… what else is there, Charlie? Tell us.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:16] There’s Tau Zero, a novel by Poul Anderson. I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing his name correctly.
Katie: [00:16:20] There’s a Greg Egan novel that deals with vacuum decay, sort of.
Annalee: [00:16:25] Ooh.
Katie: [00:16:25] So, the problem with vacuum decay is it makes very bad drama because it happens at the speed of light, so you don’t see it coming and you don’t feel it and nothing happens afterward. So, you know. Like. It’s just… you don’t even notice. So, he has a novel where he has a bubble of a new kind of vacuum that goes at half the speed of light.
Annalee: [00:16:45] Ooh.
Katie: [00:16:46] So, you can actually see it coming—
Charlie Jane: [00:16:47] Interesting.
Katie: [00:16:47] And interesting things happen to that.
Annalee: [00:16:49] That’s how you add drama—
Charlie Jane: [00:16:50] That’s interesting.
Annalee: [00:16:50] When you’re doing fiction. And then a million Doctor Who episodes.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:54] There’s a million Doctor Who episodes featuring the end of the universe. In one episode, basically, the universe is going to end unless the Doctor gets married to River Song, so he marries River Song, or she marries River Song. Actually, I really want to see Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor just hanging around being married to River Song.
[00:17:12] There’s a bunch of episodes where the universe is in danger for various reasons. There’s an episode called Logopolis where actually entropy is going to swallow up the unverse but a bunch of space mathematician wizards have created tiny little holes that lead to other universes that create that give more energy to our universe to prevent the heat death. But then, the Master does something or other and then the Doctor does something or other, and then the universe is saved. It’s really confusing.
Annalee: [00:17:34] That reminds me of The Dying Earth cycle of books may be about the end of the universe.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:40] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:17:40] It’s unclear. Maybe it’s the end of the Earth, maybe it’s the end of the universe. It doesn’t make sense that we would still be on Earth if the universe was ending because the Earth would be, like, long gone. The sun would have eaten us and then died. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff that would have happened in between.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:50] Yeah, I don’t actually know.
Annalee: [00:17:51] But that’s okay.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:52] Oh, but so, finishing up on Doctor Who—
Annalee: [00:17:54] Yes, of course.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:54] —there’s also a whole bunch of Doctor Who episodes where we visit the end of the universe but we don’t actually try to prevent it. It’s just we’re at the time when the universe is ending. Like, Utopia, one of the Peter Capaldi episodes where he hangs out with Arya Stark, I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Because it’s [Frentios? 00:18:11]. There’s a bunch of Doctor Who episodes where it’s just like, the universe is ending and it’s the natural end. It’s like Restaurant at the End of the Universe sort of, except less funny.
Annalee: [00:18:17] What are some tropes that we see in this kind of story?
Charlie Jane: [00:18:21] The thing I just said about Doctor Who, about how there’s basically—there are stories where the Doctor is trying to prevent the end of the universe and there are stories where the Doctor is just visiting the end of the universe. And it’s just going to happen and we can’t stop it. Those are the two basic approaches to the end of the universe. We can either, in that novel you mentioned by Greg Egan, we can be trying to save the universe, which is the highest possible stakes you can have, I think. Guess you can save the multiverse, but…
Annalee: [00:18:46] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:47] Yeah, there’s always higher stakes.
Annalee: [00:18:47] Remember the two universes having heat death sex?
Charlie Jane: [00:18:50] That’s true.
Annalee: [00:18:50] We could save both of them.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:51] I think on Legends of Tomorrow they’ve saved the multiverse a few times. You can either be trying to save the universe or you can just be spectating the end of the universe because it’s kind of an inevitable event. So I think that that’s kind of like, as a broad thing, those are the two kinds of stories you can tell.
Annalee: [00:19:07] And, it’s interesting because when you think about those stories, like, sort of laid out. There’s sort of two things that happen in them in terms of tone. Which is, a lot of these, like a lot of the novels, and also films that deal with the end of the universe kind of verge on metaphysics. That’s one of the things that’s interesting about Wrinkle in Time, is that it is a science story and it has scientists in it, but it is this metaphysical, religious kind of story. And of course, the cheesy ending of Isaac Asimov’s short story ends with this biblical moment of the computer kind of recreating the universe using this sort of Western religious phrase, because of course the entire universe is Judeo-Christian and that’s just how it works.
[00:19:52] The novels in this genre, I think, like, for example, like Tau Zero, are very literary and things like language breaks down. Time is disrupted. You’re kind of reading things out of order. And so, it kind of gives you a sense of cosmic weirdness. But then, there’s these Doctor Who stories, there’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe where you’re spectating the end of the universe, and it’s like, for fun. And that’s where comedy comes in and it’s basically—it’s a really cynical view, where it’s like, we can’t save the universe, there’s no cosmic anything. All we can do is like, sit back and eat popcorn and laugh.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:25] And eat Peter Davison.
Annalee: [00:20:25] And eat Peter Davison. I mean, okay.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:29] That’s what happens in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Annalee: [00:20:31] Yeah, I guess.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:31] They eat the dish of the day, which is Peter Davison.
Katie: [00:20:34] He’s a cow at the time.
Annalee: [00:20:35] Yeah. But I mean, that actually… even that is kind of this cynical thing of like, we eat ourselves…
Charlie Jane: [00:20:40] Very cynical.
Annalee: [00:20:40] We were talking about this and about how a lot of these spectatorship stories come out in the ‘80s, like, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s during a time when politics were themselves very cynical and so it was just kind of like, “Hey man, let’s just watch the world burn.” You know, it’s funny. Isn’t it great?
Katie: [00:20:56] I mean, it’s actually kind of… there’s some of that happening now. So, when I was shopping my book around, you know, proposing to write a book about the end of the universe, a significant selling point was the fact that this was shortly after the 2016 election. You know, when the election was happening, there was this whole Twitter campaign for sweet meteor of death 2016. Like, people were really, you know, feeling very apocalyptic. Very nihilistic, and there was this just total loss of hope. And so, the idea of reading about the end of the universe can be kind of cathartic. It’s like, just burn it all down. But the nice thing about the end of the universe is like, okay, this is ultimate destruction, this is like nothing survives this—
Charlie Jane: [00:21:38] The nice thing.
Annalee: [00:21:38] Yeah.
Katie: [00:21:39] Well, but the nice thing is that this is the biggest destruction you can think of but it’s definitely not going to affect myself or anybody I care about. I mean, unless it’s vacuum decay, but then you don’t even notice, so like, whatever.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:50] Yeah, you say that…
Katie: [00:21:50] You can be very detached from it and yet it’s extremely powerful destruction and so you can also feel very cathartic about, yeah! Destroy everything. It’s not going to bother me, but destroy everything!
Annalee: [00:22:03] Yeah, it’s like the pure definition of apocalypse porn.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:05] It’s the most apocalyptic scenario you can possibly imagine, and of course, when the Large Hadron Collider was turned on, some people thought that maybe it would be the end of the universe. It is the highest stakes you can possibly have in a story.
Annalee: [00:22:17] I think it’s… to me, it’s disturbing that that’s something we want to laugh at, a little bit. I mean, it’s not disturbing, but I think it’s a symptom of something political that’s happening where it’s like instead of—
Charlie Jane: [00:22:26] It’s nihilistic.
Annalee: [00:22:27] Instead of being like, wait let’s stop it, it’s just like, hey man—
Katie: [00:22:29] But like, what else are you—
Annalee: [00:22:30] —it’s funny.
Katie: [00:22:30] —What else are you going to do? It’s the universe? I mean, we can’t… you know.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:34] Yeah.
Katie: [00:22:34] I mean, we—it’s… I don’t know. I’ve been deep down this rabbit hole of ultimate destruction for a while working on this book. And so, this is very much on my mind. But it’s just a weird thing to think about, like, there are these huge forces in the universe that we have absolutely no control over. Things will end. Things end and y0u know, humanity will end and the universe will end. There is basically no scenario in which the universe doesn’t end. At least, the part of the universe we live in. You just kind of… at some point, you have to come to terms with that and the fact that there will be an ending. That we will have no legacy past a certain point, and figure out how you’re going to deal with that. And it’s been really… I mean, this is getting a little bit heavy, but it’s been interesting for me thinking about what do you do with that knowledge? And, to me, it’s like, well, have fun. Right? Like, do what you can, you know. Live a good life and enjoy the beauty of the universe while it’s here. The fact that there will be an ending, you know, for some people that could be a very sort of freeing idea, for some people it’s an absolutely horrifying idea. Because we’re talking about something so far removed in time and so big a concept and so theoretical you can also just play with these ideas and be like, “Yeah, the universe is destroyed!” And feel very disconnected from it as well.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:54] Yeah, it’s hard to wrap your mind around. But, in a sense, the idea that humans as a species would be there to witness the end of the universe is kind of a weirdly optimistic concept. It means that we survive the death of the Earth. We survive the death of our sun. We probably survive the death of our galaxy. Because our galaxy will probably go before the rest of the universe does.
Annalee: [00:24:13] Well, it’s going to smash into another galaxy, so.
Katie: [00:24:15] We’re going to smash into Andromeda. That’ll be really cool, actually.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:17] Yeah, okay, so… we’ll be around to witness that.
Annalee: [00:24:19] If we survive that, that is true. That is very optimistic, Katie.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:20] We survive the collision of the galaxy and Andromeda. There’s a bunch of stuff that we have to survive before we get to witness the end of the universe, and so when you see a science fiction story where humans are still there. And humans are like, oh yeah, there’s nothing we can do about this one. It is kind of weirdly optimistic. It is also… it does also remind us that for all of our efforts to ensure that the human race goes on forever that we have, like… that we get out into the—colonize other star systems. That we eventually spread out into the rest of the galaxy and beyond… that there is a hard limit that we face. I have actually, and I’m struggling to remember it. I know that there is a subgenre of story, and I think it’s something that comes up in superhero comics or something, occasionally, where there’s one egomaniacal person who’s like, I’m going to put on my special protection suit and it’s going to enable me to survive the end of the universe into the beginning of the next universe so that I, personally, can go on forever. Beyond the death of the universe. I think that is a trope that I’ve seen before.
Katie: [00:25:17] And that comes up in more than one of these science fiction ideas. You have an end of the universe, but it’s okay. Because you can go through it, and start somewhere new.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:26] Start over.
Annalee: [00:25:26] I mean, that’s what the Isaac Asimov story is, is really that fantasy that we will ultimately build a super computer that can do that. That can pass through and create the next universe.
Katie: [00:25:37] Because we want to keep going. It’s actually, also, tying back to the metaphysics stuff. When I was researching non-scientific ideas about the end of the universe, a sort of eschatology is what you call it in philosophy and religion. There were a lot of ideas about the end of the universe or the end of the world if—in traditions where the universe wasn’t the whole thing, where the world was basically everything. But, almost all of them were somehow cyclical. Almost all of them, like, you start again and things are a little bit better or there’s an end and then there’s something after the end where you get your comeuppance or your reward or whatever. There weren’t any that I could find where it was like, that’s it. You know. It’s just like… you’re done.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:17] Uh-huh.
Annalee: [00:26:17] I mean, and—
Charlie Jane: [00:26:18] Game over.
Annalee: [00:26:18] Yeah, and Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem is kind of about that. Like, what happens when—this is not a spoiler—but, you know, ultimately, like, there’s a bunch of different universes that kind of meet at a certain point. And some are—and they are getting better and better, which, again, is playing into this Western idea that like, we always improve. Progress!
Katie: [00:26:36] It’s not just Western, either. There’s a lot of traditions have, you know, cycles that get better or just different as you go.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:45] Moving onto the question of why are there so relatively few stories where the end of the universe is kind of the main point of the story. I mean, my, off the top of my head idea is just that it’s because it’s the ultimate high stakes and the higher the stakes, the harder it is to make it kind of human scale and comprehensible to the audience. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts about that, as well.
Katie: [00:27:03] I was thinking, when I was working on this book. I was thinking, maybe I could have, like, little fictionalized stories at the beginning of each chapter to kind of set the tone and almost all of them were just totally uninteresting. Because, like, if it’s the heat death, you just wait. And then things end. If it’s vacuum decay, you don’t see it coming. So you don’t even notice. The only sort of exciting ones would be the big crunch or the big rip and both of those are like, quite long time scales. If you want to do it with like the real science in terms of what we think is going to happen, it doesn’t—the time scales or the actual drama of it aren’t great for stories. And also, you can’t do anything about it, so that also puts a damper on the heroicism of your characters. Because you’re just kind of there.
Annalee: [00:27:50] Yeah, I definitely think that part of it is that, yeah, it’s so final that it’s—how do you kind of have a denoument after that?
Katie: [00:27:57] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:27:57] Unless you’re like Thomas Pynchon, and you’re just like, I’m gonna write something that’s like totally literary and you’re all just gonna cope with it. Um, but, I think that we do want a disaster that’s human scale. It’s more fun to destroy humanity than it is to destroy the universe. Because, that—I mean, what is it that’s causing all of our anxiety that’s making us write things and making us want to read things and watch things. It’s our anxiety about humans. It’s not our anxiety about, like, other galaxies, which are, let’s face it, objectively awesome. There is some of that, like not wanting to destroy the pretty flower of the sky.
Katie: [00:28:32] But humans.
Annalee: [00:28:34] But humans, like, you know. And people often say, like, when they’re watching a horror movie, well, I don’t mind watching the humans killed but I don’t want to see a dog killed. Like, that’s just. No. Or a cat, or something like that. Which Sam Raimi did do in a movie and I was quite shocked.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:47] Yeah, so as long as all the cats survive the end of the universe.
Annalee: [00:28:50] I’m good.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:50] Like, an entire new universe with all the cats in it.
Annalee: [00:28:50]I feel like that’s one scenario. Exactly.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:55] The catpocalypse.
Annalee: [00:28:56] So, it’s partly that human scale. But, I also think that thinking about the universe kind of ruins our… it just ruins our apocalypse fantasies in some ways because part of the fun of the apocalypse really is the post-apocalypse.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:11] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:29:11] And you know, it’s really not—it’s really not any good unless you can witness the wreckage. We can’t witness that if we don’t. But the other thing I was going to point out. My final little thing I was going to point out, is that, interestingly, in fantasy stories. The universe is often ending. Like, I feel like that on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that was the plot arc in like almost every season, was like, we have to save the universe. So, it’s something that we think about in fantasy but we can’t kind of think about in science fiction. I think there’s probably a lot of reasons for that. Partly because if we look at it scientifically like Katie was saying, it’s just like, okay. It’s over.
Katie: [00:29:48] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:29:48] Bye!
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Annalee: [00:30:05] If you’ve been watching Katie’s many presentations on this cruise, people have been asking her for her favorite science fiction and she has refused to say. But we told her she had to.
Katie: [00:30:14] I love all of them. All right. I was asked for two and I wrote down ten.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:22] Yay!
Katie: [00:30:24] I just…
Annalee: [00:30:27] Because she’s nice.
Katie: [00:30:27] I love a lot of science fiction. Okay, so we already mentioned Greg Egan because he wrote this story about vacuum decay where he tweaked it so you could make an actual good story about it. So, he writes some really interesting stuff that is just super super super hard scifi to the level where he’ll talk about theoretical physics in this alternate universe that he’s working in and I can’t really tell where the actual theoretical physics ends and his extrapolations begin because he goes so deep into it and so accurately, to such a degree that I get lost. So, I really enjoy his stuff.
[00:31:00] In terms of other authors who do really cool stuff with good physics, which is not always necessary, you know, but I enjoy it. Alistair Reynolds has some really good books that make use of relativity and the light travel limit. Nobody goes faster than light so all sorts of interesting things happen there.
[00:31:19] The Expanse which—
Charlie Jane: [00:31:22] Woo!
Live Audience: [00:31:22] Woo!
Katie: [00:31:22] —is a great series of books and a fantastic television series. They have some really cool physics in there. And, you know, there’s an alien element that breaks some of that stuff, but they also do no faster than light. No artificial gravity, and that’s a lot of fun.
Annalee: [00:31:36] You gotta have a glowing naked girl alien. It’s kind of a law.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:40] You just gotta.
Katie: [00:31:40] And then other books I’ve really enjoyed recently. If you haven’t read it yet, you have to go out and read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. And then come and talk to me about it because it’s awesome and I’m not going to tell you anything else. Because, basically anything I could say about that book would be a spoiler, but it’s really really cool.
[00:31:59] And then, I’ve been reading a lot of Becky Chambers.
Live Audience: [00:32:02] Woo!
Charlie Jane: [00:32:02] Woo!
Katie: [00:32:02] Wonderful stories. Amazing characters. A really cool idea about how to get form point A to point B without technically going faster than light, but going through some sort of other sort of space, which is very cool.
[00:32:14] Ann Leckie, the Ancillary Justice and all that.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:15] Woo!
Live Audience: [00:32:16] Woo!
Katie: [00:32:16] Fantastic. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy—
Live Audience: [00:32:22] Woo!
Charlie Jane: [00:32:22] Woo!
Katie: [00:32:22] —is incredible. And that has really amazing geophysics in it and some gravity and stuff like that. And there’s stuff in the center of the Earth. It’s very cool.
[00:32:31] And then, there are a couple of—there was a book that deals not with the end of the universe but with the end of the Earth called The Last Policeman. So, there’s a series of books. That’s by Ben H. Winters. That’s about, there’s a meteor coming and it’s basically going to destroy life on Earth and it’s about, like, how do you go about your life when you know that’s going to happen? It’s about this guy who’s a police officer and he wants to just keep solving crimes and meanwhile, society is collapsing around him. But he’s like, no, we have to do our job. And so, there’s some fun stuff there in how people would deal with knowing the apocalypse is coming and just what do you do with that information, which I thought was interesting from the perspective, of, you know, and ending that you know is going to happen and how do you come to terms with that.
[00:33:14] All right. I’m going to stop with those.
Annalee: [00:33:15] That was great!
Charlie Jane: [00:33:15] That was wonderful.
Annalee: [00:33:17] Yeah, that was awesome.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:18] Woo!
Live Audience: [00:33:18] Woo!
Annalee: [00:33:18] Thanks for coming. You have been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct. We have a Patreon and we just met our first goal, so thank you.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:26] Woo!
Live Audience: [00:33:27] Woo!
Annalee: [00:33:28] And you can find it on Patreon/OurOpinionsAreCorrect. You can follow us on Twitter @OOACpod and you can find us on all of the usual podcast places and—
Charlie Jane: [00:33:40] Please leave a review if you like us on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else.
Annalee: [00:33:44] And, we’ve been recording this on the JoCo Cruise, so thanks for being here.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:49] And thanks a billion to Chris, the sound guy, for making this happen. Chris is like, a god among mortals.
Annalee: [00:33:55] He is a god among mortals. And Katie, where can people find you on the internet?
Katie: [00:33:59] Usually on Twitter. I’m @astrokatie on Twitter. You can find me on Instagram at @academicnomad because astrokatie was taken on Instagram. And my website is astrokatie.com and you can go there and sign up for a mailing list where the only mail you’ll ever get is here’s a link to buy my book when it comes out in 2020.
Annalee: [00:34:18] All right, so look for her book in 2020. Thanks again!
Charlie Jane: [00:34:21] Thank you! You’re wonderful.
Live Audience: [00:34:21] Woo!
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