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Thursdays 9.30-9.45am 5 to 26 August 2004

A series exploring how our ideas about the end of the universe have been shaped by religion, belief, and the contemporary state of scientific thinking and observation.


The series is presented by Vatican Astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno. He is a Jesuit astro-physicist who came to religion via science and his wonder at the universe. At the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, he compares cutting edge cosmology with Chinese, Ancient Greek, Buddhist, Medieval and Victorian ideas about the end of everything.

1. It's OK, the universe is eternal

In the fifties and early sixties, the popular consensus was that the universe was there and had always been there - this is very simple and also very appealing, as we avoid thinking about an end of everything. The "steady state" theory argues that, whilst galaxies come and go, everything remains constant on a larger scale. There is birth, life and death on a galactic scale, but the universe is immortal. This idea persevered in the face of the growing evidence for a big bang because a bang suggests creation - far too Biblical for serious science.

Listen again to programme 1 Listen again to programme 1

2. The universe will crash - we're all doomed

It will die. Like a ball thrown into the air, no matter how fast the acceleration to begin with, gravity always wins. The universe will reach a critical mass, then start to fall back in on itself. This is the big crunch theory. The power of gravity wins out over the accelerating power throwing everything outwards. Microseconds from the end, black holes begin to merge with each other, little different from the collapsing state of the surrounding universe. The implosion becomes increasingly powerful, crushing all matter and every physical thing out of existence. Space and time end - there is eternal nothingness beyond this point, unless...

Listen again to programme 2 Listen again to programme 2

3. Lets go round again

Yes the universe will end, but at the crunch the process starts all over again, and could go on forever (cf. Hindu and Buddhist ideas of re-birth). Another possibility is "multiverses" - there are lots of different universes, all in different states of existence, some at moment of big bang, but will never become a universe as we know it, so grow to the size of a grape and shrink back, or expand outwards and never turn into frothy, lumpy matter - just a thin soup with no life in them. Our universe is perfect…not too fast to become a soup and not too slow so it falls back in on itself to destruct - just lumpy enough for galaxies to form and the whole thing hold together - a balancing act between gravity and acceleration, for the time being.

Listen again to programme 3 Listen again to programme 3

4. The universe is expanding - we're all doomed

The universe will die. The sun and other stars like it will throw out heat until they have no more energy to burn. The big bang threw everything outwards at a massive rate. As it gets bigger, so the gaps between matter get bigger and are filled with "dark energy". Instead of gravity pulling everything back down to a "big crunch" the dark energy accelerates the expansion process, pushing everything further apart faster and faster. In the end everything will be a cold, sad, blackness as the stars all go out, or are too far apart for us to see anything - but "us" will be long gone. This is currently the bookies' favourite.

Listen again to programme 4 Listen again to programme 4

5. Oops, I've dropped an exotic particle

A strange subatomic particle produced in an atom-smashing experiment here on earth could, theoretically, tumble to the centre of the planet and start eating the planet from the inside out - death by industrial accident. Or a random quantum fluctuation in distant space could switch off the machinery that makes matter big, and this would send a bubble of destruction moving at the speed of light and shutting down all creation in its path. All of the ideas explored in this series suggest that the future is not rosy - that the universe is going to end and that we will end along with it...or can we escape? Humans have been around for about five million years - civilisation only a few thousand - but the earth could remain habitable for two or three billion years to come, by which time inter-galactic travel might be possible.

Listen again to programme 5 Listen again to programme 5

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