According to researchers at Australian National University, the end of the universe will happen earlier than anyone previously thought. The mother of all deadlines is coming up!
Dr. Charley Lineweaver and Ph.D. student Chas Egan at ANU, who recently tried to tally and account for all the entropy in the universe, ended up finding about thirty times more than they expected to. (Entropy is a measure of how much energy a system has used up; one way to think of it is that the more entropy is present in a system, the more run-down that system is.) Lineweaver and Egan think the excess entropy quotient comes from supermassive black holes, and they've concluded that the whole of existence is nearer its stopping point than anyone believed.
It's a bit like looking at your gas gauge and saying "I thought I had half a gas tank, but I only have a quarter of a tank..." But I can't tell you how many kilometers you can go on that quarter of a tank yet.
Lineweaver and Egan will publish their findings in The Astrophysical Journal soon. It seems they'll come down firmly on the side of those who believe the universe is headed for heat death — a state of perfect equilibrium where stars, planets, and all other sources of energy boil down to the same mean level of molecular excitement. (Always with the accessible analogies, Lineweaver encouraged reporters to think of a mug of coffee, slowly cooling to room temperature.)
It's worth noting that the heat-death scenario is far from the consensus among cosmologists; when it comes to the ultimate fate of the universe, no consensus really exists. Lineweaver and Egan seem pretty confident, though, that things will play out the way they've described. Lineweaver can't be specific about how much time the universe has left, although he can do "unsettling" pretty well: "All you can say is that we are closer to the heat death than we anticipated." Of course, he's quick to note, long before that happens, our own sun will balloon to red-giant proportions and burn itself out, taking all remaining life in the solar system with it. Enjoy your Saturday, everyone.
Pictured: the universe. Photo by caseywest, used under Creative Commons license.