Apocalypse Not

One more time, the world didn’t end. Not that anyone really expected it to this time, but it’s always nice when it doesn’t happen.

This version of the End Times didn’t have the usual Biblical clout. This Last Day scenario didn’t feature the Antichrist, or a final battle on the fields of Armageddon, or a Heavenly Host announcing the return of Jesus to “rapture” up the faithful.

No, this time there was just some old stone calendar and speculations about asteroids, rogue planets, solar storms, a planetary core explosion, or a black hole inconveniently winking into existence between us and the moon. Spectacular, but not supernatural — except maybe for the black hole.

While the speculative means of our destruction were based on some of the findings of modern science, like the fizzled religious doomsdays of the remote and recent past the scientists all pooh-poohed the event. Not because it couldn’t happen, but because there was no reason to believe that it would on this particular date. It could happen, it may well happen, it might even happen a moment from now. But the possibility that our demise will happen, that we will vanish at any specific moment, is so vanishingly unlikely as to be beyond rational consideration. While probability theory shows that it is statistically almost certain that at some point someone will toss 1,000 heads in a row, that same math shows that it is statistically almost certain that you won’t toss 1,000 heads in a row today. Probability is like that — given enough time, whatever can happen will happen, but it won’t happen now.

Michael Shermer says that we are fascinated by apocalyptic stories because living at a significant time, in a notable generation, makes us feel that our lives have some significance. Maybe our lives don’t really mean anything, but at least we’re important enough to be here when it all ends. That sort of thing. Not much comfort, if you ask me, but every straw is attractive when you’re grasping.

There will be an end time, sometime. It’s the one thing we can count on. And everything else in the universe faces the same fate, sooner or later.

Some subatomic particles come to life and wink out again in tiny fractions of tiny fractions of a second. Their existence is so fleeting that it’s hard to think of them as having really existed. Certainly, as we look at things, they didn’t really live. They weren’t before any human observer could ever know that they were.

Photons have a longer tenure. In fact, if the theories about the eventual heat-death of the universe are true, in some hundreds of trillions of years, the last little photon will spin its last spin, sputter out its last little bit of energy, and that will be it for the universe.

All of the rest of us, from fruit flies to gas giants, from the smallest virus to the largest galaxy, will pop out of existence at our appropriate points along the way from the Big Bang to the Final Photon. Everything in its season, and all that.

Of course, we don’t like to think about this sort of thing. For deep psychological reasons, we’re more comfortable thinking about the sudden extermination of the Earth than we are thinking about the inevitable demise of the universe. Why should this be so? It’s simple —

We’d rather go out with a bang than a whimper.


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