Today, I was watching "How the Universe Works" on Netflix. I watched an episode about galaxies and it ended with a rising crescendo of music and the narrator, Mike Rowe, solemnly telling us that galaxies will continue to be born, live, collide, drift apart, and eventually die. As dark energy overtakes the dark matter that holds the universe in its shape and keeps galaxies clustered together, galaxies will become farther and farther apart. A night sky will no longer have any stars. In the next episode, about stars, the astronomers and physicists on the show explained that since there is a finite amount of hydrogen in the universe, and hydrogen is the fuel of stars, eventually the stars will run out of fuel and no new stars will be born. The universe will quiet down, and die in its sleep. The universe is not infinite. It began. It is. It will end.
Something about the combination of the story and the music and Mike Rowe's narration made me have an emotional response to the stories of these unfathomably huge, distant cosmic objects. I have also been listening to Brian Greene's The 4 Percent Universe, which is very much about the evolution of cosmology itself as well as the dark matter it's explaining. These two things made me realize how much of a human lense we put on things that are so unfamiliar and strange to think about. It's like in our struggle to understand the workings of something as huge and exotic as the universe, we had to see the whole thing as an allegory. And the allegory we chose was the one most familiar to us: ourselves.
We talk about stars and galaxies and the universe itself as being born, living, and dying. Nebulas are star nurseries, galaxies are cities full of stars. I love thinking about cosmic things in terms of our own human experience, but it makes me kind of sad. I have this kind of vague yearning to go into space, to see these things first hand, and I know it's simply not possible. And knowing that one day the sun will die, that it will consume the Earth and disintegrate, that our galaxy will collide with Andromeda, that dark energy will destroy the universe makes me wonder how long humans will last. Earth itself is nothing more than a blip in cosmic time. Who knows how many previous stars have hosted civilizations? Who knows how many of those civilizations had come to realize, as we have, how utterly tiny parts we play on the story of the universe?
My most comforting thought is that things were, things are, and things will be. After some time, things will end. But now? Now is beautiful.