I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day.

– Lord Byron, “Darkness” (1816)

This is your atoms on dark energy....
This is your atoms on dark energy….

Those death-obsessed physicists have killed us again. They hypothesize that our universe is comprised of roughly 68.3% dark energy (and 28.6% dark matter), meaning that only 4.9% of everything that exists is good, old fashioned ordinary matter. This assumes mass-energy equivalence (E=mc-squared), and we know Einstein was no slouch, so there you are. As I consist of mostly ordinary matter, rather than feeling particularly special, I’m inclined to feel a bit outnumbered. From a local perspective, we’re in good shape, there being only about six tons of dark energy in our solar system. The real problem is that those crazy cosmologists keep pointing out that even though the density of dark energy is low, as it is uniformly spread across space, it is likely that dark energy dominates the mass-energy of the universe. Yes, but what has it done for me lately, you’re asking? You may have heard that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating. Apparently this was not always so. Cosmologists have suggested that until about five billion years ago, the expansion of the universe was actually decelerating, mostly due to gravitational influences of dark matter. Unfortunately for us ordinary matter types, the density of dark matter decreases more quickly than dark energy (which in fact remains more or less constant) in an expanding universe. The theory is that as the universe expanded (albeit slowing down as it did), dark matter was increasingly less densely distributed, and the attraction of dark energy, which remained static would thus only increase, leading to the accelerated expansion we now see. This is a bummer as it ultimately leads to the “heat death of the universe”, or more explicitly, once dark energy exerts the overwhelmingly dominant forces in the universe we suffer from what is being colloquially referred to as “The Big Rip” in which all gravitationally bound structures fall apart. In case you weren’t listening in physics class, this would eventually overcome the electrical and nuclear forces that hold atoms together, ripping even atoms apart. This would suck. I’m fond of my atoms. They keep me warm late at night. And if the “Dark” moniker of dark energy didn’t cue you in, I think the only safe assumption to make is that dark energy wants us dead.

Now dark energy isn’t spiteful. Its not like you slept with his sister or anything, rather it just doesn’t care whether your atoms hold together since you are after all, just ordinary matter. Those cosmological constants can just be so elitist. It does seem rather counterproductive for the universe to bring conscious life into existence, only to eventually tear us apart on the cosmic rack. About 1000 billion years in the future, all we have to look forward to is an empty, dark, and absolutely cold universe, where nothing reacts to anything else, no information is passed, and nothing ever changes. In a word, college. Just kidding. There’s no beer or co-eds. Luckily, some of our all too human mythologies have spent time preparing us for this eventuality. For instance, the ancient Egyptians were fairly confident that the universe would end one day, not just in the run of the mill arrogant eschatalogical sense (where the chosen few live on in eternal bliss while the rest of us get tormented), rather in firmly believing our orderly universe would eventually dissolve, turn inert and everything except the gods Atum (“the finisher of the world” and first god) and Osiris (appropriately, the goddess of the afterlife) would disappear, which sounds suspiciously like what our friendly cosmologists are predicting. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, as well as several other extant texts make reference to the dissolution of the universe and its return to an empty and motionless state.

The deceased asks Atum: “What will be the duration of my life” – so said he. Atum: “You shall be for millions on millions of years, a lifetime of millions of years. I will dispatch the Elders and destroy all that I have made; the earth shall return to the Abyss, to the surging flood, as in its original state. But I will remain with Osiris, I will transform myself into something else, namely a serpent, without men knowing or the gods seeing” (Egyptian Book of the Dead, long chapter 175).

I’m not suggesting the ancient Egyptians had their own Stephen Hawkings around to accurately assess our ultimate demise due to physical law, but you don’t build pyramids without understanding a little something about math and physics. Their end times speculations are fascinating in that, unlike many other apocalyptic catastrophes, no renewal is envisioned, just a general winding down and wrapping up of all existence. A lot of the aspects of Zoroastrian end times prefigure the fiery doom of the later Abrahamic religions, with all the judging and sorting, but once all the evil of man has been wrung out in the Frashokereti, we all settle down to live forever without any bodily needs, and in fact, it is said our bodies will become so light that they will not cast a shadow. Everything that exists will have one unified purpose, that is to exalt the awesomeness of the universe. Sounds to me like not a lot will be going on except some concerted navel gazing as we settle in to an eternal life of nothingness. The not having a shadow thing has me a little concerned, since it suggests that the Zoroastrians were hip to the fact that the end of the universe would involve its fading into darkness. In the Buddhist Pali Canon’s Sermon of the Seven Suns, we are assured that everything will eventually vanish.

All things are impermanent, all aspects of existence are unstable and non-eternal. Beings will become so weary and disgusted with the constituent things that they will seek emancipation from them more quickly. There will come a season, O monks when, after hundreds of thousands of years, rains will cease. All seedlings, all vegetation, all plants, grasses and trees will dry up and cease to be…There comes another season after a great lapse of time when a second sun will appear. Now all brooks and ponds will dry up, vanish, cease to be (Aňguttara-Nikăya, VII, 6.2 Pali Canon).

At least things will be quiet at the end of time, especially since the only thing left will be that pesky dark energy, uniformly distributed throughout the universe. Until then its just biding its time, pushing the boundaries of the universe away from us at an accelerated pace, scoffing at our ordinariness and weak gravitational bonds. Unfortunately, we still know very little about dark matter and dark energy beyond the fact that they really don’t like us, or at least are indifferent to genocidally rending our atoms apart, which I for one consider rather unfriendly. The same scientists who like to remind us of our doom, still manage to sound excited about it.

Although 95 percent of the universe appears to consist of dark matter and dark energy, we know little about either of them. The quest to elucidate the nature of dark matter and dark energy is at the heart of particle physics—the study of the basic constituents of nature, their properties and interactions. The U.S. is presently a leader in the exploration of the Cosmic Frontier. Compelling opportunities exist for dark matter search experiments, and for both ground-based and space-based dark energy investigations (US Congress, 2009, p35-36).

Obviously, what you can’t see can still kill you. You can’t run and you can’t hide and the fact that there’s only six tons of dark energy in the vicinity is not a saving grace, considering that there will still only be six tons nearby long after your constituent atoms have been shredded by the other 68.3% of the universe. It doesn’t even help if we spread out throughout the universe, since more or less the same thing will happen everywhere. You can’t avoid it, but maybe you can fractionally prolong your existence through the little know stratagem of moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, for as Mark Twain remarked, “If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later”. And if you run into any dark energy, I’ll hold him. You hit him.

United States. Congress. House. Committee on Science and Technology (2007). Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Investigating the Nature of Matter, Energy, Space, And Time: Hearing Before the Subcommittee On Energy And Environment, Committee On Science And Technology, House of Representatives, One Hundred Eleventh Congress, First Session, October 1, 2009. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2009.