At Reuters, Gregg Easterbrook has an imagination bending little essay that surveys what astronomers think they now know about the cosmos:
Current evidence suggests the universe may continue, in roughly its current form, for at least hundreds of billions more years: which, to us, might as well be eternity. The universe may well exist forever, though evolving into a form with features that would seem strange, such as the deaths of hot stars and galaxies so far apart they would lose the ability to see each other. But that would happen over trillions of years, a time-scale that can’t be considered in any common-sense way.
Hundreds of billions of years in its current form. If that “hundreds of billions” of years means, say, about 600 billion years, then our 13.7 billion year old universe is not even 2.5%—(or 1/40th)—of the way through its current organizational configuration (consisting of about 100 billion galaxies with tens of billions of stars each)!
In other words, life and mind arrived in the universe right up front, in perhaps the first 2.5% of the life of its current configuration. And if we realize that galaxies may go on existing in the universe for trillions of years longer than even this (though ultimately drifting too far apart from each other to be seen by the conscious beings that might inhabit them), then this life generating universe has really only just begun.
And so Gregg Easterbrook writes the following:
[C]reation glistens with the dew of morning.
How different this is from what astronomers thought about the size and age of the universe just a hundred years ago. Easterbrook surveys the evolution of our understanding this way:
Just a century ago, even after people considered themselves advanced owing to developments like powered flight, it was not known that any other galaxies existed. Our Milky Way was considered the totality of creation. In 1923, the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way was proven. Initial estimates were that there might be as many as a few dozen additional galaxies — a number then viewed as stunning. The latest estimate, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, is 100 billion galaxies. The count is expected to rise.
Star estimates have risen in concert. A century ago, even the best-informed believed the Milky Way contained perhaps a few million stars. By the 1960s, astronomers contended the Milky Way held a billion stars, a number many found hard to believe. By the 1980s, the estimate had grown to 40 billion stars. Today it’s thought the Milky Way contains at least 90 billion stars and perhaps as many as 400 billion. Many other galaxies are likely to contain similar numbers. Recently, researchers led by Yale University cosmologists proposed there exists at least three times as many stars as previously thought. The Yale estimate is 200 sextillion stars, a 2 followed by 23 zeroes.
Here’s Conor Friedersdorf’s response to the 200 sextillion stars number:
And this is just the stars in our known universe—our big bang universe. What if we live in a multiverse? Or how about something even more crazy: a holographic multiverse? The mind reels.
At the end of his essay, Easterbrook asks two questions:
If we evolved on a wholly natural basis, who can say where evolution, and our own thinking, may take us? If there is a higher intelligence behind the universe, who can say what may be in store?
Realizing that the universe is at the beginning of its existence, and not already mature or at its end, gives me hope. It makes it feel somehow less bleak, like something meaningful is up. Life and mind appear not to be afterthoughts. Like Barack Obama, the universe (or its creator) is playing a long game.