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It ain’t over ‘til it’s over - ‘The End of Everything’

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It ain’t over ‘til it’s over - ‘The End of Everything’ (photo by J. Adam Huggins/Quanta Magazine)

It’s a reality of life that nothing lasts forever. All things are transient. Everything that begins must eventually end.

And I do mean EVERYTHING.

Even the universe itself will eventually come to an end. Entire fields of study are devoted to beginnings and endings on a cosmic scale, with brilliant scientists spending their professional lives staring out into the universe and deep into the atom in an effort to understand not just how everything works, but how it might eventually stop working.

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s new book “The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)” (Scribner, $26) is a smart, surprisingly funny look at some of the ways that cosmologists believe the universe could potentially end. Don’t worry – it probably isn’t taking place anytime soon. Most of these endings won’t happen tomorrow. Probably.

It’s an accessible and engaging work of pop science, one that finds a way to strike a balance between the intricate physics and mathematics that go into these explorations and an easy narrative tonality that allows even those without PhDs to wrap their heads around these big-by-definition ideas. Consider this a crash course in cosmic eschatology, a sort of End Of It All 101. It is informative and entertaining in the way that only the very best science writing can be.

“The End of Everything” begins with, well … the beginning. Mack gives us an introduction to the cosmos, a quick breakdown of the music of the spheres. She then walks the reader through the Big Bang up until, well … now, along with the various evolutions of that theory over the years since its inception. It’s an easy-to-understand primer on the origins of the universe that provides welcome context to what follows.

Namely – the end.

Mack has brought together five different theories on how the end of the universe might come about. Each of these theories receives its own chapter, packed with scientific engagement and smoothed-out explanations of wildly complicated scientific and mathematical concepts. The chapters derive their titles from the ending that they explore – “Big Crunch,” “Heat Death,” “Big Rip,” “Vacuum Decay” and “Bounce” – and go into their respective subjects before things close out with the aptly-titled “Future of the Future.” All of this presented with an informed enthusiasm (and unapologetically dorky humor) that is utterly infectious

That’s the thing – Mack is so unwaveringly passionate about her subject that the reader can’t help but be pulled in by the sheer gravity of her enthusiasm. She’s long had a reputation as someone, whether it is in her longform writing for assorted science-driven publications or her presence on Twitter (for real – her handle is @AstroKatie and she is an outstanding follow), who is able to make the nuances and complexities of her discipline approachable for the layperson. She absolutely accomplishes that here.

It might seem like an odd time to engage with a book about the end of the universe, considering *waves hands around* all this, but the truth is that there’s an odd sense of comfort that comes with learning about it. In a world that can feel like it is crumbling around you, there’s something soothing in reading a book that reminds you that while the capital-E End is coming, it probably won’t be for a while – a few billion years at least.

For what it’s worth, my favorite (well, “favorite”) potential ending is vacuum decay. I had a tiny bit of baseline familiarity with most of these concepts, thanks to a brief dalliance with pop physics back in the day, but vacuum decay was largely a new one on me. I’m not going to go into detail, but it’s worth mentioning that this is the one with the best (albeit still infinitesimally small) chance of happening … whenever.

All of this is elevated by the fact that Mack is genuinely funny – even her groaners (of which there are a few) will elicit a chuckle, reluctant though it might be. She has found ways to make room for that humor even as she’s offering up real insight into complicated physical and mathematical phenomena, doing so in such a way as to ensure that it all fits together without ever feeling forced. Cosmology and astrophysics, yes, but also stuff like quantum mechanics and string theory and a whole assortment of other areas of high-level thought. Anyone who has ever read this kind of mainstream academic nonfiction knows just how hard that is to pull off, yet Mack manages it with seeming ease.

(Note: You might be someone who skips the footnotes/endnotes. Don’t do that here – your understanding and enjoyment of the book will only be enhanced by reading them.)

“The End of Everything” is science writing for the masses in the best possible way, a book that simplifies some staggeringly complex ideas without ever condescending to its audience. Its casual tone and charming good humor allow us to fully engage with the intricacies – both large and small – of this fascinating subject. Ironically enough, you’ll be sad to reach the end of “The End of Everything.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 August 2020 11:58


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