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Is Everything in the Universe Doomed to Evaporate?
Yes, but not for a while.
We’re not saying we’re envious of SYFY’s The Ark (streaming now on Peacock), but it’s not all bad news aboard the Ark One. Sure, their ship is damaged and a substantial portion of the crew is dead. And, yes, they are still light-years away from their destination with challenges and perils aplenty. It isn’t ideal, but they do get to explore the universe while the rest of us are stuck at home, watching it on TV.
That’s not nothing, but if we want to get out and explore the cosmos ourselves, we might want to get started. Because everything in the universe is eventually destined to evaporate in a puff of entropic smoke, according to a recent posted to the ArXiv pre-print server.
As they get new data, astronomers are constantly updating our view of how the universe will end, but here’s more or less what we think will happen. As the universe expands and the space between objects grows ever greater, activity in the universe will begin to wind down. Eventually, there won’t be enough gas and dust in dense enough clumps to form new stars, and the universe will blink out. The remaining dark universe will be populated by black holes and little else. With nothing left to feed them, the black holes will slowly release radiation as they evaporate into nothingness.
How Radiation Escapes Black Holes
It’s true that nothing can escape the event horizon of a black hole. Once you go in, you’re in for good. However, it is also true that black holes do lose mass over time, thanks to a quirk of quantum mechanics, which is where Stephen Hawking comes in. In 1974, he figured out that mass is lost from black holes through quantum radiation. But why does this happen?
Small fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime occur all the time, and they manifest as particle-antiparticle pairs which blip in and out of existence almost instantaneously. Most of the time, they annihilate one another as soon as they appear, and the universal balance is maintained. But if a pair pops into existence near a black hole’s event horizon, one of them can be lost before they can annihilate themselves. The antiparticle falls into the black hole while the particle flits away to parts unknown. This process became known as Hawking radiation and is believed to be the ultimate fate of the supermassive black holes that will be the last residents of the universe.
Evaporation for the Masses
The new study from researchers at Radboud University in The Netherlands confirms Hawking’s predictions about black holes and extends them to other large objects. According to their calculations, an event horizon isn’t a necessary component for these particle-antiparticle separations. Instead, gravity and the associated curvature of spacetime are all that’s needed. As a result, any large object capable of sufficiently curving spacetime should experience a similar form of radiation.
“That means that objects without an event horizon, such as the remnants of dead stars and other large objects in the universe, also have this sort of radiation. And, after a very long period, that would lead to everything in the universe eventually evaporating, just like black holes. This changes not only our understanding of Hawking radiation but also our view of the universe and its future,” said Heino Falcke, one of the study’s authors, in a statement.
Fortunately, we’ve got at least a few trillion years before the universe really starts winding down. We’re not certain that evaporating is a pleasant way to go.
When you put things into cosmic perspective, the events of The Ark don’t seem so bad. Find out for yourself, on Peacock!