How To Survive in an Infinitely Expanding Universe

Up until just a few years ago, speculative cosmologists -- and a few other oddballs who didn't have a lot more to do than worry about what happens billions of years from now -- were getting quite worried as to just how we might be able to prolong humanity's existence in a contracting or "closed" universe. It seems that most all of these fellows were convinced that sooner or later the Big Bang is due to reverse itself, and provided humans are still around camping on some planet or another, they will definitely be turned into cosmic toast.

Astrophysicist and mathematician Frank J. Tipler was one of these. His flashy and heavily footnoted book, The Physics of Immortality (Doubleday, 1994), proposed a solution that was, if nothing else, highly entertaining. Since humans are, in Tipler's eyes, nothing but biologically constructed computers, the logical way to prolong their existence would be to transfer their software programs (us) into more fireproof hardware in the form of tiny computers that could easily be rocketed to other planets far from our own solar system (which is due to be engulfed by the sun when it reaches it "red giant" stage about five billion years from now). Once safely ensconced on other planets or even in orbit around stars that have a better life-expectancy than our own sun, life could so be prolonged more or less indefinitely. It might not be exactly eternity, but given the prospects, it would be better than nothing. He even suggested that made clever enough, these "nanocomputers" might even be able to "steer" the collapsing universe on a course that would slow down its collapse. Meanwhile, since apparently Tipler's students at Tulane University and the University of Florida (note what people tend to think about in steamy climates) found the prospect of virtual eternity as a computer program rather unappealing, he suggested that these computers could be programmed in such a way that they would allow for virtual sex -- which he claimed could be just as satisfying and with a lot less complications, than the real thing.

But it now seems that is all history. After years of searching high and low for various elusive forms of "dark matter", late in 1996 astronomers began to conclude there just isn't enough cosmic stuff out there to ever cause gravity to take over and reverse the Big Bang. The universe seems doomed to expand forever and in the process to die slowly in what seems to be rather oddly called a final "heat death" -- which means just the opposite of what it sounds like (think really deep freeze!). For as the universe expands, it cools. A good thing, as otherwise we'd never have ended up with stars and planets in the first place. So except for momentary flare-ups, like when the sun does reach it's red giant stage (which really represents the sun's last hurrah before it cools into a cool white dwarf) things are going to get mighty cold. In fact they are already, with the outer reaches of space right now topping out at about 2.7 degrees Kelvin (which is somewhere around -270 C).

Now given those prospects, at first glance, the future for intelligent life, even in computerized form, looks pretty bleak (we all know of some office computers don't do very well if the temperature drops much below 60 F overnight!). But all is not lost. In fact, recent research indicates that if properly designed, electronics can be made to operate even more efficiently the colder it gets -- in fact, that peak efficiency can only be reached when the components are operating at close to absolute zero (O Kelvin or -273 C).

If so, then according to Martin Rees, who is Britain's current "Astronomer Royal", in his most recent book (Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others, Helix Books, 1997). we could design a strategy for nearly infinite survival, based on the fact that if there is to be no Big Crunch, the properly designed intelligence can just continue on and on and on. All we have to do, according to Rees, is to "keep cool" (getting all hot and bothered would just be a waste of energy), "think progressively more slowly" (jumping to conclusions in that climate could lead to disaster) and "hibernate for long intervals" (would we have any other choice?). If so, then it seems to me that we Northerners have already made a good start towards becoming truly immortal.

4/29/99

Published in Arts Source, Autumn 1999


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