Checked content

Ultimate fate of the universe

Related subjects: Space (Astronomy)

Did you know...

This selection is made for schools by a children's charity read more. Child sponsorship helps children one by one

The ultimate fate of the universe is a topic in physical cosmology. Many possible fates are predicted by rival scientific theories, including futures of both finite and infinite duration. Once the notion that the universe started with a Big Bang became accepted by a consensus of scientists, the ultimate fate of the universe became a valid cosmological question, one depending upon the physical properties of the mass/energy in the universe, its average density, and the rate of expansion. By extension, the fate of the universe is also a significant theme in science fiction.

Emerging scientific basis


Alexander Friedman

The theoretical scientific exploration of the ultimate fate of the universe became possible with Albert Einstein's 1915 theory of general relativity. General relativity can be employed to describe the universe on the largest possible scale. There are many possible solutions to the equations of general relativity, and each solution implies a possible ultimate fate of the universe. Alexander Friedman proposed a number of such solutions in 1922. In some of these the universe has been expanding from an initial singularity; this is, essentially, the Big Bang.


Observational evidence was not long in coming. In 1929, Edwin Hubble published his conclusion, based on his observations of Cepheid variable stars in distant galaxies, that the universe was expanding. From then on, the beginning of the universe and its possible end have been the subjects of serious scientific investigation.

Big Bang and Steady state theories

In 1931, Georges-Henri Lemaître set out a theory that has since come to be called the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. In 1948, Fred Hoyle set out his opposing steady state theory in which the universe continually expanded but remained statistically unchanged as new matter is constantly created. These two theories were active contenders until the 1965 discovery, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a fact that is a straightforward prediction of the Big Bang theory, and one that the Steady State theory cannot account for. The Big Bang theory immediately became the most widely held view of the origin of the universe.

Cosmological constant

When Einstein formulated general relativity, he and his contemporaries believed in a static universe. When Einstein found that his equations could easily be solved in such a way as to allow the universe to be expanding now, and to contract in the far future, he added to those equations what he called a cosmological constant, essentially a constant energy density unaffected by any expansion or contraction, whose role was to offset the effect of gravity on the universe as a whole in such a way that the universe would remain static. After Hubble announced his conclusion that the universe was expanding, Einstein wrote that his cosmological constant was his "greatest blunder".

Density parameter

An important parameter in fate of the universe theory is the Density parameter, Omega (Ω), defined as the average matter density of the universe divided by a critical value of that density. This selects one of three possible geometries depending on whether Ω is equal to, less than, or greater than 1. These are called, respectively, the flat, open and closed universes. These three adjectives refer to the overall geometry of the universe, and not to the local curving of spacetime caused by smaller clumps of mass (for example, galaxies and stars). If the primary content of the universe is inert matter, as in the dust models popular for much of the 20th century, there is a particular fate corresponding to each geometry. Hence cosmologists aimed to determine the fate of the universe by measuring Ω, or equivalently the rate at which the expansion was decelerating.

Repulsive force

Starting in 1998, observations of supernovae in distant galaxies have been interpreted as consistent with a universe whose rate of expansion is accelerating. Subsequent cosmological theorizing has been designed so as to allow for this possible acceleration, nearly always by involving dark energy, which in its simplest form is just a positive cosmological constant. In general dark energy is a catch-all term for any hypothesised field with negative pressure, usually with a density that changes as the universe expands.

Role of the shape of the universe

The current scientific consensus of most cosmologists is that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on its overall shape, how much dark energy it contains, and on the equation of state which determines how the dark energy density responds to the expansion of the universe. Recent observations have shown that, from 7.5 billion years after the Big Bang onwards, the expansion rate of the universe has actually been increasing, concurrent with the Open Universe theory, and marked 'Accelerating' on the graph.

The ultimate fate of an expanding universe is determined by whether Ω is greater than, less than, or equal to 1.

Closed universe

If Ω > 1, then the geometry of space is closed like the surface of a sphere. The sum of the angles of a triangle exceeds 180 degrees and there are no parallel lines; all lines eventually meet. The geometry of the universe is, at least on a very large scale, elliptic.

In a closed universe lacking the repulsive effect of dark energy, gravity eventually stops the expansion of the universe, after which it starts to contract until all matter in the universe collapses to a point, a final singularity termed the " Big Crunch," by analogy with Big Bang. However, if the universe has a large amount of dark energy (as suggested by recent findings), then the expansion of the universe can continue forever – even if Ω > 1.

Open universe

If Ω<1, the geometry of space is open, i.e., negatively curved like the surface of a saddle. The angles of a triangle sum to less than 180 degrees, and lines that do not meet are never equidistant; they have a point of least distance and otherwise grow apart. The geometry of the universe is hyperbolic.

Even without dark energy, a negatively curved universe expands forever, with gravity barely slowing the rate of expansion. With dark energy, the expansion not only continues but accelerates. The ultimate fate of an open universe is either universal heat death, the " Big Freeze", or the " Big Rip," where the acceleration caused by dark energy eventually becomes so strong that it completely overwhelms the effects of the gravitational, electromagnetic and weak binding forces.

Conversely, a negative cosmological constant, which would correspond to a negative energy density and positive pressure, would cause even an open universe to recollapse to a big crunch. This option has been ruled out by observations.

Flat universe

If the average density of the universe exactly equals the critical density so that Ω=1, then the geometry of the universe is flat: as in Euclidean geometry, the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees and parallel lines continuously maintain the same distance.

Absent dark energy, a flat universe expands forever but at a continually decelerating rate, with expansion asymptotically approaching a fixed rate. With dark energy, the expansion rate of the universe initially slows down, due to the effect of gravity, but eventually increases. The ultimate fate of the universe is the same as an open universe. In 2005, the Fermion-boson fate of universe theory was proposed, positing that much of the universe would ultimately be occupied by Bose-Einstein condensate and the fermion quasiparticle analog, perhaps resulting in an implosion.

Theories about the end of universe

The fate of the universe is determined by the density of the universe. The preponderance of evidence to date, based on measurements of the rate of expansion and the mass density, favors a universe that will not collapse.

Big Freeze or Heat Death

The Big Freeze is a scenario under which continued expansion results in a universe that is too cold to sustain life. It could, in the absence of dark energy, occur only under a flat or hyperbolic geometry, because such geometries then are a necessary condition for a universe that expands forever. With a positive cosmological constant, it could also occur in a closed universe. A related scenario is Heat Death, which states that the universe goes to a state of maximum entropy in which everything is evenly distributed, and there are no gradients — which are needed to sustain information processing, one form of which is life. The Heat Death scenario is compatible with any of the three spatial models, but requires that the universe reach an eventual temperature minimum.

Big Rip: Finite Lifespan

In the special case of phantom dark energy, which has even more negative pressure than a simple cosmological constant, the density of dark energy increases with time, causing the rate of acceleration to increase, leading to a steady increase in the Hubble constant. As a result, all material objects in the universe, starting with galaxies and eventually (in a finite time) all life forms, no matter how small, will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles and radiation, ripped apart by the phantom energy force and shooting apart from each other. The end state of the universe is a singularity, as the dark energy density and expansion rate becomes infinite. For a possible timeline based on current physical theories, see 1 E19 s and more.

Big Crunch

The Big Crunch. The vertical axis can be considered as either plus or minus time.

The Big Crunch theory is a symmetric view of the ultimate fate of the universe. Just as the Big Bang started a cosmological expansion, this theory postulates that the average density of the universe is enough to stop its expansion and begin contracting. The end result is unknown; a simple extrapolation would have all the matter and space-time in the universe collapse into a dimensionless singularity, but at these scales unknown quantum effects need to be considered (See Quantum gravity).

This scenario allows the Big Bang to have been immediately preceded by the Big Crunch of a preceding universe. If this occurs repeatedly, we have an oscillatory universe. The universe could then consist of an infinite sequence of finite universes, each finite universe ending with a Big Crunch that is also the Big Bang of the next universe. Theoretically, the oscillating universe could not be reconciled with the second law of thermodynamics: entropy would build up from oscillation to oscillation and cause heat death. Other measurements suggested the universe is not closed. These arguments caused cosmologists to abandon the oscillating universe model. A somewhat similar idea is embraced by the cyclic model, but this idea evades heat death, because of an expansion of the branes that dilutes entropy accumulated in the previous cycle.

Big Bounce

The Big Bounce is a theorized scientific model related to the creation of the known Universe. It derives from the oscillatory universe or cyclic repetition interpretation of the Big Bang where the first cosmological event was the result of the collapse of a previous universe.

According to one version of the Big Bang theory of cosmology, in the beginning the universe had infinite density. Such a description seems to be at odds with everything else in physics, and especially quantum mechanics and its uncertainty principle. It is not surprising, therefore, that quantum mechanics has given rise to an alternative version of the Big Bang theory. Also, if the universe is closed, this theory would predict that once this universe collapses it will spawn another universe in an event similar to the Big Bang after a universal singularity is reached or a repulsive quantum force causes re-expansion.

Multiverse: no complete end

The multiverse hypothesis states that our universe is but one universe among infinite parallel universes, possibly with different physical laws. Whatever the ultimate fate of our universe may be, almost all parallel universes will have different fates. And while many universes may be closed, many others may be open. The multiverse as a whole may never end completely.

False vacuum

If the vacuum is not in its lowest energy state (a false vacuum), it could tunnel into a lower energy state. This is called the vacuum metastability event. This has the potential to fundamentally alter our universe; in more audacious scenarios even the various physical constants could have different values, severely affecting the foundations of matter, energy, and spacetime. It is also possible that all structures will be destroyed instantaneously, without any forewarning.

Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics

According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the universe will not end this way. Instead, each time a quantum event happens that causes the universe to decay from a false vacuum to a true vacuum state, the universe splits into several new worlds. In some of the new worlds the universe decays; in some others the universe continues as before.

Cosmic uncertainty

Each possibility described so far is based on very simple form for the dark energy equation of state. But as the name is meant to imply, we know almost nothing of the real physics of the dark energy. If the theory of inflation is true, the universe went through an episode dominated by a different form of dark energy in the first moments of the big bang; but inflation ended, indicating an equation of state much more complicated than those assumed so far for present-day dark energy. It is possible that the dark energy equation of state could change again resulting in an event that would have consequences which are extremely difficult to parametrize or predict.

Observational constraints on theories

Choosing among these rival scenarios is done by 'weighing' the universe, for example, measuring the relative contributions of matter, radiation, dark matter and dark energy to the critical density. More concretely, competing scenarios are evaluated against data on galaxy clustering and distant supernovae, and on the anisotropies in the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Life in a mortal universe

Dyson's eternal intelligence hypothesis proposes that an advanced civilization could survive for an effectively infinite period of time while consuming only a finite amount of energy. Such a civilization would alternate brief periods of activity with ever longer periods of hibernation.

John Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (1986) propose a Final anthropic principle: the emergence of intelligent life is inevitable, and once such life comes into being somewhere in the universe, it will never die out. Barrow and Tipler go even further: the eventual fate of intelligent life is to permeate and control the entire universe in all respects but one: intelligence cannot halt the Big Crunch. Moreover, it will not want to do so because the main source of energy in a universe undergoing a Big Crunch will be a hot spot in the sky arising from an asymmetrical contraction of the universe. They speculate that the required asymmetry will be engineered by some form of intelligent life.

Tipler's Omega point scenario (Tipler 1994) concludes that the reverse of the eternal intelligence scenario would be the case for a civilization caught in the final stages of a Big Crunch. Such a civilization would, in effect, experience an infinite amount of "subjective" time during the remaining finite life of the universe, using the enormous energy of the Crunch to accelerate information processing faster than the approach of the final singularity.

Though possible in theory, it is not obvious whether there will ever exist technologies that will make any of these scenarios feasible. Moreover, effective solutions may be indistinguishable from the present state of our universe. In other words, if beings cannot stop the universe from collapsing, at least they can use the energy of the collapse to simulate future universes that resemble the ending universe, but with artificial or compressed time scales.

Recent work in inflationary cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics has moved the discussion of the ultimate fate of the universe in directions distinct from the scenarios set out by Dyson and Tipler. Theoretical work by Eric Chaisson and David Layzer finds that an expanding spacetime gives rise to an increasing "entropy gap", casting doubt on the heat death hypothesis. Invoking Ilya Prigogine's work on far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, their analysis suggests that this entropy gap may contribute to information, and hence to the formation of structure.

Meanwhile, Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, Edward Harrison, and Ernest Sternglass argue that inflationary cosmology strongly suggests the presence of a Multiverse, and that it would be practical even with today's knowledge for intelligent beings to generate and transmit de novo information into a distinct universe. Alan Guth has speculated that a civilization at the top of the Kardashev scale might create fine-tuned universes in a continuation of the evolutionary drive to exist, grow, and multiply. This has been further developed by the Selfish Biocosm Hypothesis, and by the proposal that the existence of the fundamental physical constants may be subject to a Darwinian evolution of Universes. Moreover, recent theoretical work on the unresolved quantum gravity problem and the Holographic Principle suggests that traditional physical quantities may possibly themselves be describable in terms of exchanges of information, which in turn raises questions about the applicability of older cosmological models.

Religious perspective

Many religions have an end-of-the-universe prediction. The theological study of the ultimate fate of the universe and/or ultimate destiny of mankind is known as eschatology. Many religious beliefs are cataclysmic, and some theists do not view the various scientific theories about the end of the universe as contradicting their religious beliefs. In fact, some theist argue that such scientific theories validate end-of-the-universe predictions.

The end of the universe in science fiction

Scientific speculation about the ultimate fate of life in the universe merges almost seamlessly into science fiction. Many works describe the end of the universe—occasionally purely educational exercises describing theories of the day, more often exploiting its potential as the ultimate sense of wonder plot device, or satirising the pretensions of humanity in general and cosmologists in particular. Science fiction can try to suggest a scientific eschatology that searches for meaning in the face of the new knowledge. Countless sci-fi and fantasy works use the threatened destruction of the universe as their plot device, usually with an evil supervillain and/or the incompetence of humanity as the cause, and usually with human ingenuity saving the day.

The topic of heat death was explored in science fiction as early as 1895 in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, which includes an evocation of the heat death of the universe as imagined by scientists like Lord Kelvin at that time, consisting of the fading out of the Sun to an exhausted red ember and a vision of Earth as a cold and bland eroded desert, to as recently as 2007 in the Doctor Who episode Utopia, with the last remnants of society struggling to survive in a universe without stars and few planets still capable of supporting life.

Religion is not wholly excluded from science fiction's explorations of the end of our universe. Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 short story " The Nine Billion Names of God" treats non-scientific eschatology seriously. Its famous last line ominously chronicles the end of the universe as observed by mankind: Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out..

Isaac Asimov's short story, " The Last Question" was published in 1959. Humankind builds a series of supercomputers to solve the question of how to stop entropy, but are unsuccessful until long after the universe (and humanity) has succumbed to heat death (the only cosmological end-scenario articulated at the time). A computer built in hyperspace finally discovers how to reverse the process and does so: "' LET THERE BE LIGHT!' And there was light—".

The Big Crunch as the fate of the Universe was explored in science fiction as early as Poul Anderson's 1970 novel Tau Zero which posits a cyclic universe where the big crunch will be surrounded by a cloud of hydrogen, and that a starship could navigate a course to avoid the singularity and emerge into the new universe after the subsequent big bang.

The end of the universe has been used for satirical and comedic effect. In Douglas Adams's science-fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the " Restaurant at the End of the Universe" and its patrons are projected through time to the end of the universe, for guests to watch the event as dinner entertainment.

The concept of an end to the universe has inspired some authors to explore the more human-centric topics of fate and free will, In Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse Five, the primary character is a war veteran who is contacted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who claim that one of their scientists will accidentally destroy the universe while testing a new type of spaceship fuel. Tralfamadorians are aware of this event because they perceive all of time instantaneously, in a similar way to how someone would observe an entire range of mountains in one instant.

Retrieved from ""