Thursday, December 25, 2008

End of Days

Many religions -- particularly Christianity -- focus a lot of their energy on the end of the world. This has always struck me as a rather odd thing to emphasize. Our lives are so ephemeral and so it would seem to me that it would make a lot more sense to focus on the here and now that we can observe and experience rather than focus on the hereafter that we can't know nor investigate until, or if, that time comes.

In Christianity, the Book of Revelations with its wild and vivid imagery is the standard by which a great many Americans contemplate the "end times". At different points of history, various individuals have claimed to decipher this cryptic work and have declared that the end will come on a specific day. To date, they have each been wrong for the world, as we know it, is still here.

While religion can't really provide us with the kind of useful information about the end of things, science can -- or at least it comes closer. Part of the problem with science though is that theories and our understanding of the cosmos are always evolving and so what we understand to be a definitive explanation today will be replaced by a different and/or more definitive explanation tomorrow.

According to the state of our current scientific knowledge, the event that organically will bring about the end of planet Earth (and life on it) is the demise of the sun. According to the website, Windows to the Universe,
About 5 billion years from now, the hydrogen near the center of the Sun will begin to run out and the helium that has collected there will start to contract. This will increase the rate of hydrogen burning in a shell around the core. Our star will slowly bloat into a red giant and destroy the inner planets of our solar system, including the Earth.

As the helium core continues to contract from gravity, it will soon get dense and hot enough to fuse three helium particles into carbon. At the same temperature, the carbon can also fuse with another helium to form oxygen. Since the Sun is not very massive compared to some stars, it will never get hot enough in the center to create elements much heavier than carbon and oxygen. These elements will collect in the center of the star. Later it will shed most of its atmosphere, creating a planetary nebula, and emerge as a hot white dwarf star.
So, regardless of what we humans do, we have approximately 5 billion years to do it here.

I realize that, in the year 2008, 5 billion years is like forever. If we don't render the planet uninhabitable via global warming or kill ourselves ten times over from a nuclear or biological holocaust, one day a few billion years from now our descendants will be staring the end of life as they know it in the face and I'm certain this eventuality won't be pretty.

Since planet Earth has a finite lifespan (with the only caveat that this is what we know based on current knowledge), it would seem to me that we should take every care and make every effort to baby our planet as much as possible. It's not that living in a more sustainable manner will increase the planet's life expectancy, but it will maximize the quality of life for future generations.

I think that's the very least we can do for those who come after us. I think this is particularly poignant because some future generation will face the starkest reality ever -- the end of what we know and hold dear.

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