Time Running Out

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(Johnny B’s Hiking and Photo Blog)

More and more we hear people arguing that we’re running out of time.  It’s not just because December 12, 2012 is just around the corner, nor is it just because time seems to folks like us to fly by as we get older.  There’s a growing sense of urgency, a growing malaise, among Americans of all ages.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of time:  We live in a universe  that has existed for an estimated 13.7 billion years (+/- 0.13 billion years), which NASA reminds us is a long time indeed:  “To put this in perspective, the Solar System is thought to be 4.5 billion years old and humans have existed as a genus for only a few million years.” [1]  And we don’t seem to be running short of space-time, either:  Astronomers predict that our solar system is going to be around for another 5-8 billion years before the sun expands into a red giant, and then collapses into a white dwarf, with dire consequences for the planets:

“The discovery of remnants of a planetary system orbiting a dead star is providing astronomers with a window on the distant future of our own Solar System. * * *

“According to [Boris] Gaensicke [of the University of Warwick in England ], when the Sun dies the fate of the Earth is unclear: our planet could be engulfed, or it may narrowly escape as its orbit moves further out. ‘There is a vast uncertainty, which mainly relates to the poor understanding of mass loss during the late stages of evolution [of a star],’ he says. Even if the Earth is not consumed, however, Earth’s water and most of its atmosphere will be boiled away.” [2]

One would think that something so far out in the future, so utterly inconsequential to those of us living today, ought not to trouble anyone.  Still, strangely, even the most casual Google search reveals some edginess about the ultimate fate of the earth.  Some of it appears to relate to attempts to reconcile emerging science with ancient scripture.  We are reminded that the Quran tells how 1,400 years ago Allah informed “an illiterate man in 7th century Arabia” of the sun’s ultimate death and qayamat (judgment day).  For example:

Quran{75:7-12}  “when the sun and moon are brought together, on that day will man exclaim where to flee? On that day the journey’s end will be”,

Quran{81:1-6}  “when the sun with its spacious light is folded up and when the stars loose their light and when the seas boil over with a swell.” [3]

The fairly modern concept of astronomy existing in those days apparently comprehended that the Solar System would not last forever, and it appears to have contemplated the expansion or explosion of the sun.  These ideas, however, were uninformed by scientific knowledge of either the age of the universe or of the origin of our species. Understandably, it was thought that people like us would be around at the end.  Much, however, has been learned since then.

Humans are mammals, a class of animals that has only existed for a little more than 200 million years, evolving from reptiles during the Triassic Period when dinosaurs were also first establishing themselves. [4]  Hominidae, a family of primates, has been around for about 4 million years, a very long time but only about 1/1125 of the entire period since the solar system began. Homo sapiens [5], however, the only surviving species of hominidae, has only been around for about 100,000 years.

This chart shows what has been revealed so far in the hominid fossil record of Africa, including Homo erectus from which Homo sapiens may have descended: [6]The hominid lineage leading to Homo sapiens remains uncertain, and new theories emerge as the fossil record accumulates. [7]  One thing is certain, however: it would be very far-fetched to imagine that people like us would still exist 5 billion years from now.

Nonetheless, Marko at the the Homeboy Astronomy Blog [8] sounds the alarm:

One day the Sun will die. One day the Sun will “eat” planet Earth and life on Earth will stop. Is that scary? Oh yes it is, but do not worry.  The sun will shine the next five billion years before it becomes the “Death Star.”  Nothing lasts forever, not even the sun. * * *

The future does not sound good. It is a bit dramatic and scary. Anyhow, we do not need to be afraid at all. When we think in which scale these phenomena happen, we realize that there is no need to worry at all. The universe was born 13.7 billion years ago and the sun will continue shining the next five billion years. Human beings [have] measured [time for only a] few thousand years, which is really nothing compared to figures such as 5 billion years and 13.7 billion years. So, there is no need to be afraid of the future of the sun because the things happen during very very long time. Our life on Earth is not in danger when it comes to the sun, but the fact is that one day the sun will die, for sure. When that has happened, there is no life on Earth.

Why would Marko, I wondered, try to scare me just to tell me there’s no need to worry?  At first glance I overlooked the ad for solar energy at the top of the blog: It turned out that Marko had subtly turned my thoughts to solar energy!  Cleverly, he got me thinking: Maybe I should be using more solar energy before the sun starts to die!  (Of course, the Sun has already “started to die.”  Just like us, it started dying the moment it was born.)

There is only one comment posted on Marco’s blog, a candid reaction by the undaunted and irrepressibly practical Tazina:

We will be colonizing other planets long before the sun destroys the earth; that is if we’re still here to develop that technology, and not destroyed by something like flooding, a direct hit from a gamma ray or a huge asteroid. We may destroy ourselves. A virus could wipe us out. We should be grateful for every tenuous day we have on Planet Earth and not think about the future too much.

“… every tenuous day we have on Planet Earth…”   It appears that Tazina feels it too:  We’re running out of time.

But hold on, wait just a minute: What, exactly is “time” and what is the “future”? Watch these videos, then come back:

  Unification of space and time : Relativity

Space-Time And The Speed Of Light | Einstein’s Relativity

Seriously, it’s not easy for everyday folks like us to stop thinking of gravity as a “force” and think of it as a warping of the space-time continuum, but that’s what Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity instructs us to do.  Look at where that takes us:

As you read this sentence, you probably think that this moment—right now—is what is happening. The present moment feels special. It is real. However much you may remember the past or anticipate the future, you live in the present. Of course, the moment during which you read that sentence is no longer happening. This one is.

In other words, it feels as though time flows, in the sense that the present is constantly updating itself. We have a deep intuition that the future is open until it becomes present and that the past is fixed. As time flows, this structure of fixed past, immediate present and open future gets carried forward in time. This structure is built into our language, thought and behavior. How we live our lives hangs on it.  

Yet as natural as this way of thinking is, you will not find it reflected in science. The equations of physics do not tell us which events are occurring right now—they are like a map without the “you are here” symbol. The present moment does not exist in them, and therefore neither does the flow of time. Additionally, Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity suggest not only that there is no single special present but also that all moments are equally real [see “That Mysterious Flow,” by Paul Davies; Scientific American, September 2002]. Fundamentally, the future is no more open than the past.  [9]

Huh?  Dare I ask, if “the present moment does not exist” in the equations of physics, might they possibly still need a little more work?  It appears that all of this can be understood with just enough brainpower.  Take the case of Jacob Barnett:

A 12-year-old child prodigy has astounded university professors after grappling with some of the most advanced concepts in mathematics.  Jacob Barnett has an IQ of 170 – higher than Albert Einstein – and is now so far advanced in his Indiana university studies that professors are lining him up for a PhD research role.

The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week, is now tutoring fellow college classmates after hours.  And now Jake has embarked on his most ambitious project yet – his own ‘expanded version of Einstein’s theory of relativity. [10]

Jake gets it, for sure.  I’m not sure what to think at this point, and I suspect that language and perception are both culprits.  But I seriously wonder whether reality is or should be considered as all about the equations of physics.  Math lays it all out, then language screws it up.  Even the great Stephen Hawking must abandon his equations and use language to explain to us why be concludes that “no divine force was needed to explain why the Universe was formed.” [11]  If space and time did not exist before the big bang, he explains, nothing existed, including a potential creator.   But he doesn’t seem to have really explained anything with that assertion, certainly not the meaning of “existence.”   

How can we cope with the associated idea that “time” can’t run out because it isn’t even moving?  Cosmic consequences and the consequences of general relativity are interesting, but do not seem at all material or relevant to how we choose to live our lives.  In the shorter time-frames of our lives and near-history, time does indeed move for us; our perception of time is all that should matter, assuming that our “existence” matters to us.

I’m with Tazina, to the extent she is suggesting that we ought not to think so much about the distant future.  Ironically, though, people become tragically myopic when considering matters nearer to the present, falling into the trap of operating within static models of reality and refusing to look “ahead” to the dynamic consequences.  Thus, people allow themselves to conclude that cutting government spending will reduce deficits, when they know (or should know) that economic dynamics generally lead to the opposite result.  They cannot see the effects of climate change, even though they are incredibly short-term in geological time, so they blindly continue destructive practices.

There is, however, one overwhelming problem none of us can ignore much longer: To put it bluntly, because it has no natural enemies and has the ability to control and manage natural resources, Homo sapiens has overrun the planet and is destroying it.  Last month, the human population reached 7 billion.  To put that in perspective, there likely were only about 5 million people ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was invented. [12]  By the time of Christ, there were about 200 million people:

[B]y 1650 there were only 500 million people, and in 1850 only a little over a billion. Since there are now [1990] well past 5 billion people, the vast majority of the population explosion has taken place in less than a tenth of one percent of the history of Homo sapiens. This is a remarkable change in the abundance of a single species. After an unhurried pace of growth over most of our history, expansion of the population accelerated during the Industrial Revolution and really shot up after 1950. Since mid-century, the human population has been growing at annual rates ranging from about 1.7 to 2.1 percent per year, doubling in forty years or less. Some groups have grown significantly faster; the population of the African nation of Kenya was estimated to be increasing by over 4 percent annually during the 1980s — a rate that if continued would double the nation’s population in only seventeen years.[13]

Here is a graphic and stunning video representation of world population growth produced by Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth, Inc.), from 1 A.D. projected out to 2030.  The pace of population growth in just two or three generations has become geometric.  Here is a graph of population growth from Wikipedia with the population level presented on a logarithmic scale (i.e. – each unit increase on the logarithmic scale represents an exponential increase in the underlying quantity for a given base):

So we struggle on, unwilling and/or unable to reconcile our quests for individual survival, freedom and well-being with the serious limitations of a damaged environment and the resource limitations that are becoming exponentially worse.  The crises that lie ahead can be addressed, with people living drastically different lives with lower standards of living.  It seems like a heavy lift, given our evolved nature, especially since we are only very recently beginning to really understand ourselves and the world.

Somewhere out in the future, as ice ages come and go, the human race will eventually perish, along with most of the ecosystems people have dominated.  The only question is how they will go out.  Will they continue the current path of unbridled aggression and destruction, or will they reach a higher, more cooperative, dignified and spiritual level of civilization?

(For Tazina and the Tribe:  Black and White, Jackson Browne (1986))

JMH – 11/11/11


[1] Universe 101, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), updated July 19, 2010.

[2] Clues to the Death of Our Solar System, by Hilary Jones, Cosmos, December 22, 2006

[3] Death of Solar System, Remembering Allah

[4] The Evolution of Mammels, Enchanted Learning

[5] Classification of Homo Sapiens, Biology Cabinet

[6] Genus Homo, African History, about.com; see also Becoming Human, an interactive documentary.

[7] Most recently: “Early members of the genus Homo, possibly direct ancestors of people today, may have evolved in Asia and then gone to Africa, not vice versa as many scientists have assumed.  Most paleoanthropologists have favored an African origin for the potential human ancestor Homo erectus. But new evidence shows the species occupied a West Asian site called Dmanisi from 1.85 million to 1.77 million years ago, at the same time or slightly before the earliest evidence of this human-like species in Africa.”  Site hints at Asian roots for human genus,  by Bruce Bower, Science News, July 2, 2011.

[8] The Death of the Sun – The End of Life on Planet Earth, by Marko Pyhajarvi, The Homeboy Astronomy Blog, February 2, 2008.

[9]  Is Time an Illusion?, by Craig Callender, Scientific American, May 24, 2010

[10] 12-year-Old Child Prodigy Taking On Toughest Problems in Physics, from The Daily Mail; reported at Archive Fire, March 24, 2011.  See also: A Beautiful Mind? 12-Year-Old Boy Genius Sets Out to Disprove Big Bang, by Jonathon M. Seidl, The Blaze, March 25, 2011.

[11] Stephen Hawking: God Was Not Needed to Create the Universe,  by Laura Roberts, The Telegraph, September 2, 2010.

[12] That point in geological time coincided with the beginning of an interglacial period of the Quaternary Ice Age; the last glacial period of the Quaternary ended about 10,000 years ago with the start of the Holocene epoch. See Timeline of Glaciation,   Wikipedia.

[13] Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990 (Ch. 1, “Why isn’t everyone as scared as we are?

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