From The New York Times: “Just a Few Billion Years Left to Go”

From The New York Times

Feb. 17, 2020
Dennis Overbye

Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
By Brian Greene

Brian Greene’s main idea, his own grand, unified theory of human endeavor, is that we want to transcend death by attaching ourselves to something permanent that will outlast us. Credit Elena Seibert

“In the fullness of time all that lives will die.” With this bleak truth Brian Greene, a physicist and mathematician at Columbia University, the author of best-selling books like The Elegant Universe and co-founder of the yearly New York celebration of science and art known as the World Science Festival, sets off in Until the End of Time on the ultimate journey, a meditation on how we go on doing what we do, why and how it will end badly, and why it matters anyway.

For going on is what we do, building bridges, spaceships and families, composing great symphonies and other works of art, directing movies, and waging wars and presidential campaigns, even though not only are we going to die, but so is all life everywhere in the fullness of eternity, according to what science now thinks it knows about us and the universe.

Until the End of Time is encyclopedic in its ambition and its erudition, often heartbreaking, stuffed with too many profundities that I wanted to quote, as well as potted descriptions of the theories of a galaxy of contemporary thinkers, from Chomsky to Hawking, and anecdotes from Greene’s own life — of which we should wish for more — that had me laughing.

It is also occasionally afflicted with stretches of prose that seem as if eternity will come before you ever get through them, especially when Greene is discussing challenging topics like entropy. If I really understood entropy, I suspect I would be writing this review in an office at M.I.T., not an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Greene’s main idea, his own grand unified theory of human endeavor, expanding on the thoughts of people like Otto Rank, Jean-Paul Sartre and Oswald Spengler, is that we want to transcend death by attaching ourselves to something permanent that will outlast us: art, science, our families and so forth.

For Greene this impulse has taken the form of a lifetime devotion to mathematics and physics, of the search for laws and truths that transcend time and place. “The enchantment of a mathematical proof might be that it stands forever,” he writes.

If he dies, the work lives on as part of the body of science and knowledge. But as a cosmologist, he knows this is an illusion: “As our trek across time will make clear, life is likely transient, and all understanding that arose with its emergence will almost certainly dissolve with its conclusion. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is absolute.”

Depressing. But in a Starbucks one day, he says, he had a realization, a sort of conversion to gratitude. Life and thought might occupy only a minute oasis in cosmic time, but, he writes, “If you take that in fully, envisioning a future bereft of stars and planets and things that think, your regard for our era can appreciate toward reverence.” Or maybe, he jokes, he was just losing his mind.

This book, then, is a love letter to the ephemeral cosmic moment when everything is possible. Reading it is like riding an escalator up through a giant department store. On the lower floors you find things like time, energy, gravity and the Big Bang, and biology.

The universe is expanding — why? So far the best explanation is that a virulent antigravitational force dubbed “inflation” — and strangely allowed by Einstein’s equations — briefly switched on during the first split trillionth of a second of time and sent everything flying, but astronomers still lack the smoking-gun proof.

All living creatures that we know about on Earth share the same genetic tool kit, based on DNA. And we are all battery-operated, deriving energy from a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, ATP for short. In order to keep going, Greene tells us, each cell in your body consumes some 10 million of these molecules every second.

Upward we go through the emporium of ideas to floors dedicated to consciousness, free will, language and religion. We don’t linger long on any floor. Greene is like one of those custom shopping consultants. He knows the wares, the ideas being pitched in every department. He drags in all the experts — from Proust to Hawking — and tries to be an honest broker about the answers to questions we can’t really answer.

Why do humans tell stories? Was there an evolutionary advantage to be gained from taking time out from the hunt to sit around the campfire and gab — a bonding experience? Is the shared imagination a way to practice navigating unknown territory, or a guide for living your life?

Can physics explain not just how the mind — neurons and electrochemical impulses — works but also explain the feeling of having a mind, that is to say consciousness? Greene is cautiously hopeful it can. “That the mind can do all it does is extraordinary. That the mind may accomplish all it does with nothing more than the kinds of ingredients and types of forces holding together my coffee cup, makes it more extraordinary still. Consciousness would be demystified without being diminished.”

But he’s not always sure. Admitting that the neurophysical facts shed only “a monochrome light” on human experience, he extols art as another dimension. “We gain access to worlds otherwise uncharted,” he says. “As Proust emphasized, this is to be celebrated. Only through art, he noted, can we enter the secret universe of another, the only journey in which we truly ‘fly from star to star,’ a journey that cannot be navigated by ‘direct and conscious methods.’”

Two main themes run through this story. The first is natural selection, the endless inventive process of evolution that keeps molding organisms into more and more complex arrangements and codependencies. The second is what Greene calls the “entropic-two step.” This refers to the physical property known as entropy. In thermodynamics it denotes the amount of heat — wasted energy — inevitably produced by a steam engine, for example as it goes through its cycle of expansion and contraction. It’s the reason you can’t build a perpetual motion machine. In modern physics it’s a measure of disorder and information. Entropy is a big concept in information theory and black holes, as well as in biology.

We are all little steam engines, apparently, and everything we accomplish has a cost. That is why your exhaust pipe gets too hot to touch, or why your desk tends to get more cluttered by the end of the day.

In the end, Greene says, entropy will get us all, and everything else in the universe, tearing down what evolution has built. “The entropic two-step and the evolutionary forces of selection enrich the pathway from order to disorder with prodigious structure, but whether stars or black holes, planets or people, molecules or atoms, things ultimately fall apart,” he writes.

In a virtuosic final section Greene describes how this will work by inviting us to climb an allegorical Empire State Building; on each floor the universe is 10 times older. If the first floor is Year 10, we now are just above the 10th (10 billion years). By the time we get to the 11th floor the sun will be gone and with it probably any life on Earth. As we climb higher we are exposed to expanses of time that make the current age of the universe look like less than the blink of an eye.

Eventually the Milky Way galaxy will fall into a black hole. On about the 38th floor of the future, when the universe is 100 trillion trillion trillion years old, protons, the building blocks of atoms, will dissolve out from under us, leaving space populated by a thin haze of lightweight electrons and a spittle of radiation.

In the far, far, far, far future, even holding a thought will require more energy than will be available in the vastly dissipated universe. It will be an empty and cold place that doesn’t remember us. “Nabokov’s description of a human life as a ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’ may apply to the phenomenon of life itself,” Greene writes.

In the end it is up to us to make of this what we will. We can contemplate eternity, Greene concludes, “and even though we can reach for eternity, apparently we cannot touch eternity.”

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