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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002 / 4 Shevat 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

The end is near, eventually -- IT'S sad to ponder the end of the universe. But we must gird up our loins.

(Girding up their loins was what people always did in the olden days when affliction, alarm and anxiety blossomed like dandelions on the suburban lawns of ancient Greece. "Gird" is the root word of girdle. Loin is the root word of loiter. So girding up one's loins means wearing a girdle while lollygagging about in shopping malls. Remember that.) (Remember what?)

I dislike being the bearer of bad tidings, but it's time that you knew: Just as the universe had a beginning, it will have an end. Maybe. We weren't around to see the beginning, of course, because it happened before 1855, and as far as we know, no one born in 1855 or before still is around today. But it's no surprise that the creation of the universe occurred before our time.

The surprise is that even if we're around to see the end of the universe, we won't see it. Probably. At least we won't see it if Abraham Loeb is right.

Loeb is a theoretical astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I don't mean that he's theoretically an astrophysicist. No, he's really an astrophysicist. What I mean is that his studies and research and whatnot are in a field called theoretical astrophysics.

I also dislike having to interrupt myself to explain such fine points, but if I don't, I know how you are. You will call me or e-mail me or send a delegation to see me to ask whether Loeb really is an astrophysicist.

Here's what Loeb says about his work: "If the current energy density of the universe is indeed dominated by a cosmological constant, then high-redshift sources will remain visible to us only until they reach some finite age in their rest-frame." Clear enough? Oh, all right. I'll unpack this for you so you'll know what to expect when the end comes.

One of the things theoretical astrophysicists do is to theorize. For instance, they have theorized about what we'd see if we were around to watch how the universe ends billions of years from now (or this Friday, depending on your theoretical theologyphysics).

Here and there you'd find scientists guessing the expanding universe will quit expanding and start contracting until we all get smooshed in what they call the Big Crunch, which would be the opposite of the Big Bang.

Similarly, you'd also find your occasional scientist who theorized that the expanding universe would simply expand forever. If this happened, eventually everything would be almost infinitely far away and dark and cold. I have known people who fit that description and haven't liked one of them.

But it now appears that Albert Einstein was right (again) about something he once thought he was wrong about. And that is that the expansion of the universe isn't slowing down but, instead, is speeding up, pushed along by a strange energy called "the cosmological constant."

Loeb, who must be good at arithmetic and such, factored in all this stuff and concluded that eventually galaxies will be moving away from us too fast for us to see. In 100 billion years or so, our "cosmic horizon" will include fewer and fewer galaxies. As these running-away galaxies cross our horizon on their way out, their image to us will get frozen. All that will change for us is that they'll grow dimmer and dimmer. But the light they emit after they cross our horizon will never reach us.

In the end, humanity on Earth will be increasingly alone. The good news is we have lots of time to gird our loins for this. So let's put on our girdles and meet at the mall. Let's do it today, before the world ends tomorrow.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved