originally published September 26, 2014
Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.
Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.
And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.
Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.
If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.
Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat.
In 36,000 years, the red dwarf star Ross 248 will become our sun’s closest neighbor. In 50,000 years, Niagara Falls will have fully eroded into Lake Erie, which might not matter as we could be facing our next ice age around then, which will render most of our terrestrial tourist attractions rather unpleasant to visit.
It would take about 100,000 years for a full-on terraforming project to turn Mars into Earth Part II, so we’d best get started on that. Especially considering that by then we’ll have likely experienced a supervolcanic eruption that will dramatically tweak the landscape. The proper motion of the stars will have rendered most of our constellations completely unrecognizable. We might as well find a new home.
In about 500,000 years the fascinating terrain of Badlands National Park in South Dakota will probably have eroded into nothing – that is, if it hasn’t yet been smashed by a meteorite about 1km thick. We’ll probably see one of those by then.
In a million years, the red supergiant star Betelgeuse will likely go supernova. On the plus side, its troubles end there. We’ll still have our issues to contend with. For example, every piece of glass in the world today will have decomposed by then. The Great Pyramid of Giza will erode into nothing, and any granite monument will have eroded by one meter. Also, this is roughly when Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon will disappear. Neil’s mark on the universe will outlive the rest of ours.
On a happier note, assuming we can keep our grubby mitts off our oceans, in about two million years the coral reefs around the globe will have fully recovered from our polluted meddling. The Grand Canyon, however, will have broadened into a wide valley around the Colorado River, which won’t look nearly as impressive on a postcard.
In 7.2 million years, the faces on Mount Rushmore will have crumbled into unrecognizability without the intervention of some serious geological surgery. Mars has more to worry about though: in 8 million years its moon, Phobos, will be disintegrated by tidal forces on the planet, turning into a ring of orbiting crud that will crash onto the planet’s surface about three million years later and leaving a big mess that nobody will want to clean up.
In about ten million years, the East African Rift valley will be flooded by the Red Sea, splitting apart the continent of Africa. Around this time evolution will have seriously altered the population of our globe, assuming you believe in such crazy science. In 50 million years the California coast will have scooted north along the San Andreas Fault toward Alaska, while the Appalachian Mountains and Canadian Rockies will have eroded to a nub. Also, the larger chunk of what’s left of Africa will be separated from western Europe by a theoretical footstep, as it sweeps north and closes off the western gate to the Mediterranean, forming a new range of mountains in the process.
No more luaus in Hawaii after 80 million years – that’s when the Big Island becomes the last to sink into the Pacific. Things get really interesting around the 250 million year mark though, as our continents may have circled back around by then to once again form a single supercontinent, which we are presently calling Amasia, Novopangea or Pangea Ultima. It doesn’t really matter; by then no one will care what we called it. Another 250 million years down the line, it will have drifted back apart.
In 600 million years, tidal acceleration will have nudged the moon so far back it will no longer be possible to view a total solar eclipse from Earth. The sun will be brighter then, water will evaporate and plate tectonics will grind to a halt. By 800 million years from the present, carbon dioxide levels will have plummeted to the point at which photosynthesis is no longer possible. Goodbye ozone, goodbye oxygen and goodbye multicellular life. As far as its residents are concerned, Earth is a goner.
We will have lost the rings of Saturn at around the 100 million year mark. By about 1.5 billion years from now, Mars will start to look moderately more attractive, having achieved a planetary temperature roughly equivalent to Earth’s during our last ice age. So that’s something. Meanwhile, our planet is going to be about as attractive a home in 3.5 billion years as Venus is today. Dress lightly.
In 5 billion years, the sun will exhale its last breath of hydrogen, and evolve into a red giant. By then the Milky Way will have collided with the Andromeda Galaxy, fusing into a single unit known as ‘Milkomeda’, because ‘Androky Way’ sounds stupid.
Chances are we’re looking at about 7.59 billion years before the sun has expanded enough for the Earth and moon to plummet into its surface, snuffing out whatever is left of home. Venus and Mercury don’t stand a chance at this point, however it’s likely that Saturn’s moon Titan will have achieved temperatures that can support life by then, so I suppose we have a backup plan.
Now we’re looking deep into the haze at the heart of our little crystal ball. In one quadrillion years, assuming we haven’t fallen into the surface of the sun, Earth will detach from its orbit, along with the rest of our planetary brethren. The sun will likely scoot out of the galaxy in about 100 quintillion years, that is if it doesn’t slip into the massive black hole in the galaxy’s midsection.
According to the theory of quantum tunneling, in 1065 years every molecule in the universe will have rearranged and all matter will be liquid. Stephen Hawking believes that all objects in the universe will have decayed into subatomic particles by the time we’ve reached 1.7×10106 years into the future. Coincidentally, this is exactly how long I insist on waiting before I’d be willing to sit through a production of Cats.
After that, there isn’t much to write about for our universe. Everything collapses or gets reborn in a fresh Big Bang. Existence gets its final passport stamp and trades itself in, or else it circles back around and once again rolls the opening credits. It’s a humbling notion to one guy in a dusty beige cubicle. It fills my soul with all the passion and destruction of the universe in one mighty surge.
Which is perfect, since nothing sells better than graphic sex and nauseating violence.