Exploring Cosmic Catastrophes With Astrophysicist Katie Mack

In her recent release The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), Mack invites readers on a journey through the various possible catastrophic conclusions to our universe.

Heat Death. Vacuum Decay. The Big Crunch. These deceptively simple terms are just a few of the names for the ways that scientists believe our universe may end.

I’m not talking about the end of our little Milky Way Galaxy. I’m talking about the end of the universe itself: the incomprehensibly large thing within which we and our little galaxy exist.

Some scientists are fascinated not with the beginning of the universe’s existence, the Big Bang, but with its end. Dr. Katie Mack, a theoretical physicist at North Carolina State University, is one of these people.

Even though many of us may mistakenly think the universe could go on existing forever, scientists have realized that this is not the case. When Mack learned that the universe, and our existence with it, could end right now, at any moment, it changed her.

“The shock and vertigo of the recognition of the fragility of everything, and my own powerlessness in it, has left its mark on me,” she writes. “There’s something about taking the opportunity to wade into that cosmic perspective that is both terrifying and hopeful.”

She describes the ‘overview effect’ astronauts often have when they return to Earth after having perceived it from a distance. “For me,” writes Mack, “thinking about the ultimate destruction of the universe is just such an experience.”

Fortunately for readers who may not have pondered this kind of question before, Mack begins her book with the Big Bang, helping us non-cosmologists understand the expansion of the universe from its hot and dense conception. It’s a tough thing to explain infinities, but Mack manages to both educate and entertain. We get interesting graphs and illustrations, wit and humor, and (to my relief) very little math.

The End of Everything is classic popular science, in the spirit of Brian Greene with a touch of Carl Sagan. Scientific, but approachable; Humorous at times, but enlightening nonetheless.

I particularly enjoyed Mack’s explanation of the Big Rip: “You can think of it as an unraveling,” she writes. “The first things to go are the largest, most tenuously bound. Giant clusters of galaxies, in which groups of hundreds or thousands of galaxies flow lazily around each other in long intertwined paths, begin to find that those paths are growing longer.”

As they drift away and lose their pull, the distant stars no longer follow their expected orbits. From our vantage point on Earth, “our night begins to darken, as the great Milky Way swath across the sky fades. The galaxy is evaporating.”

Soon, slowly, the planet begin to drift away too. “Just months before the end, after we’ve lost the outer planets to the great and growing blackness, the Earth drifts away from the Sun, and the Moon from the Earth. We too enter the darkness, alone.”

It’s delightfully unnerving, and Mack tells us all about these possible endings in tantalizing detail. They’re enough to keep you up at night, wondering, watching the stars out your window and hoping they don’t blink out.

They probably won’t any time soon – at least, that’s the message I got from The End of Everything. For now, cosmologists like Mack can study the collapse of the cosmos in relative peace.

For those of us who don’t speak the language of advanced mathematics, books like these are a fascinating and delightful way to explore a subject most of us would never have the chance to otherwise. Mack has done readers of popular science a great service – and her contribution to the genre is sure to find its place alongside classics like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

A beautiful, entertaining, and rapturous exploration of the mind-boggling science behind the universe’s demise.

Purchase your copy through this Bookshop.org link and support independent bookstores and Read More Science!

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer and professional bookworm. Wrangling horses and microbes in the Pacific Northwest. Aspiring old cat lady. Genderqueer (she/they).

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