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Physicist predicts the 'mindboggling' number of years before the universe ends

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Aug 17, 2020, 9:28 PM EDT (Updated)

Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. The universe's perpetual clock keeps on clicking off the seconds, even in peculiar times such as these, when work weeks seem to fly past like hours and months are a silent blur. 

But just to put things into proper perspective for how insignificant our strictly-defined daily blocks of time truly are, one inquisitive scientist has devised a formula to predict just when cosmic existence will finally come to a screeching halt and the final supernova erupts. 

Hint: the hypothetical number of years has like a bazillion zeroes!

Theoretical physicist Matt Caplan, an assistant professor of physics at Illinois State University, admits that humanity will be long gone when this lonely farewell occurs in an impossibly distant future that's difficult to wrap one's mind around — when all the heavenly lights go dark, black holes dominate, and frigid stars flicker out forever.

Credit: Black Dwarf - NASA/JPL

“It will be a bit of a sad, lonely, cold place,” Caplan states. “It’s known as ‘heat death,’ where the universe will be mostly black holes and burned-out stars. I became a physicist for one reason. I wanted to think about the big questions — why is the universe here, and how will it end?" 

In a new research paper published Aug. 7 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Caplan did some heavy-duty number-crunching and attempted to calculate how deceased stars might transition and evolve over time. In doing so, he came to an approximate conclusion as to when that depressing event might drop.

Caplan's findings start with an educated estimate of just how much built-up iron black dwarfs of varied sizes would need to trigger an explosion. He figured out that the initial "black dwarf supernova" will detonate in about 10 to the 1,100th years. 

Credit: Getty Images

"In years, it’s like saying the word ‘trillion’ almost a hundred times," he explains. "If you wrote it out, it would take up most of a page. It’s mindbogglingly far in the future.

“Stars less than about 10 times the mass of the sun do not have the gravity or density to produce iron in their cores the way massive stars do, so they can’t explode in a supernova right now. As white dwarfs cool down over the next few trillion years, they’ll grow dimmer, eventually freeze solid, and become ‘black dwarf’ stars that no longer shine. Stars shine because of thermonuclear fusion — they’re hot enough to smash small nuclei together to make larger nuclei, which releases energy. White dwarfs are ash, they’re burnt out, but fusion reactions can still happen because of quantum tunneling, only much slower." 

Caplan postulates that the most gigantic black dwarfs will POP first, then a diminishing number of more diminutive stars until there are none left, which he expects will be in about 10^32,000 years. That's one zany string of zeroes!

Credit: Getty Images

"It’s hard to imagine anything coming after that," he said. "Black dwarf supernova might be the last interesting thing to happen in the universe. They may be the last supernova ever. Galaxies will have dispersed, black holes will have evaporated, and the expansion of the universe will have pulled all remaining objects so far apart that none will ever see any of the others explode. It won’t even be physically possible for light to travel that far." 

They say that all good things must come to an end, and apparently it's no different for our universe as well. Now go make your final years extraordinary!