Universe Dies — Film at Eleven!

“Twenty-four hours from now, we’ll all be a million miles from here. Wherever ‘here’ is.”

After a physicist friend once explained the simultaneous terrestrial and stellar motions of the earth, sun, and Milky Way galaxy, that was what he concluded. Last night, at a University of Toronto Bookstore-sponsored discussion of Jim Lebans’ new book, The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Space, interviewer Bob McDonald picked up that same ball and ran with it. By the time he had calculated the movements and speeds involved, we realized that at that very moment, sitting in the Innis Town Hall on campus, everyone was moving at a speed of about 2.2 million kilometres per hour.

You kind of wanted to fling yourself to the floor and hang on for dear life, just thinking about it.

It was like a “space geek” convention. In fact Lebans, a producer for the Quirks and Quarks radio program, and Bob McDonald, the show’s host, unabashedly admit that they are the big space fans among the program’s staff. McDonald, in fact, was in Florida in 1977 for the launches of Voyagers 1 and 2, sitting with Carl Sagan and the team that designed the gold records sent with the two craft, conveying information about earth to any aliens that might find them. He’s returned to NASA over the years, every time Voyager drew near a new planet and began sending information. He’s watched himself, the scientists, and other journalists age while following the Voyagers’ progress through space.

Lebans, meanwhile, though it only took a little over two months to write the book, has actually been researching it for a decade, with each astronomy-related guest on the program bringing new information on space travel, asteroids, the stars, and the nature of the universe.

The book starts from the ground up, beginning with questions about the earth and working outward until it discusses the end of the universe itself. As far as that goes, by the way, there are three possibilities: 1) the Big Crunch, where the expanding universe begins shrinking back into the singularity that originally exploded in the Big Bang; 2) the Big Chill, where the universe just keeps expanding and cooling, until everything loses energy, goes dark, and becomes, as McDonald says, “very boring;” or 3) the Big Rip, where the recently discovered dark energy keeps pushing the universe outward until it rips everything apart. We have so much to look forward to!

But that’s pretty much the case, the duo says, when you study astronomy. Every scenario you pursue ends with the death of the earth, sun, solar system, and eventually the universe. Lebans and McDonald are both quite cheery as they talk about it.

In fact, when reading his chosen chapter – “What Will Happen When the Asteroid Hits” – Lebans describes the various scenarios with great relish. Everything from a smallish impact that “merely” destroys Quebec City and sets the entire province on fire – to a larger collision that extinguishes our species – he lays out the consequences with ghoulish enthusiasm, assuring us that we have a greater chance of being hit by an asteroid than of buying a winning lottery ticket. The greatest known potential for collision currently resides with Asteroid 1950 DA, which has a 1 in 300 chance of hitting the earth on March 16, 2880.

But even if we think that gives us plenty of time to avoid it, we’re still  not out of the woods. Lebans reminds us that while scientists are busily mapping all the potentially dangerous asteroids in the solar system, it’s the objects way out in the Oort Cloud, beyond Pluto, that could swoop in undetected, giving us no time to stop them.

Like I said. Cheery.

But even in the midst of that doom and gloom (after all, most of it would be billions of years from now), the two men’s excitement is palpable and contagious. The mere descriptions of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (volcanic, sulphurous Io; the methane rivers of Titan) discovered for us by Voyager 1, makes it hard not to want to go out there and see for ourselves.

And imagine! In about five years, Voyager 1 will cross the outer boundary of the sun’s magnetic field, making it the very first human-made object to transmit from true interstellar space. It’s hard not to get goosebumps about that.

Do I want to read this book? If I hadn’t already been interested in the topics it discusses, the enthusiasm and excitement of both Lebans and McDonald would have convinced me.

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