The problem to end all problems

We spend out lives worrying about all kinds of things. Everyone has their own little problems: late to work, had a fight with the significant other, got a parking ticket, struggling to pay of debt, etc… Some of us are more fortunate than the others, but we all have problems. Even the rich and the famous who by all counts shouldn’t have a worry in the world manage to somehow find crippling personal issues to worry about. I guess this is part of the human condition.

On the other hand, the stuff that most of us deal with on personal level is small potatoes compared to the larger, local and global issues. Stuff like economical depression, oceanic oil spills, climate change, diminishing sources of fossil fuels and zombie outbreaks are things that affect all of us. These are much more significant problems that we ought to be worrying about but we don’t because they are not personal enough. These things won’t affect us here and now and so we put them out of out mind. Actually, that’s a lie – there are people out there who make it their business to worry about such things and we are slowly but surely taking steps, maneuvering to be in a position to fix them when they will become much more pressing matters. Which is better than nothing I guess.

Of course if you take another step back, you will see that even these issues look insignificant in the larger scope of things. For example, we are in the process of polluting our orbit with garbage that may make space flight difficult if not impossible for our descendants. Not bad enough? Ok, lets take a few more steps back and turn toward our sun. Yeah, that big yellow thing in the sky, that heats our planet to a comfortable temperature and functions as the main energy input for the global food chain. It will eventually go supernova and obliterate all life on Earth.

It’s not going to happen tomorrow, or next week. It won’t affect our children, or even children of their children. Many generations will live and die on this beautiful planet before this happens. The hope is that by that time we will have the whole space travel thing figured out and will have colonies outside of the solar system where the refugees from Earth could be evacuated.

But even that seems quite insignificant if you think about the biggest problem of all time: the end of the universe. There are many theories about how it will end – big rip, big crunch, etc… No matter which one of these you subscribe too – one thing is certain: the universe will end. The stars can’t go on burning forever and they will eventually supernova, collapse, then slowly dim and extinguish themselves. And all the intelligent life in the universe will die along with them.

So that’s the ultimate problem on the table: the death of universe, life and everything we know. Next to this, our petty little squabbles and personal issues are insignificant. Isn’t this something we should be worried about, at least a little bit? Yes, we have millions upon millions of years to go, but this is a hell of a problem to solve, no? If we start now, we may possibly have a chance to fix it. If it can be fixed. Really, the problem here is reversing entropy. How do we restart the stars after they burn out. Is it possible to kick low energy state matter into higher energy state without actually putting energy into the equation? Our current understanding of science says no, but then again, we have that big singularity thing coming along in a few decades (fingers crossed) so perhaps we can figure something out eventually.

Here is a question though: how many of you actually thought about this before? Who here actually deemed to be a “problem”? I have to admit that it didn’t even cross my mind until I read The Last Question by Issac Asimov. It is a short store about just the thing I described above – the problem to end all problems. And the way Asimov describes it makes it painfully clear that the end of everything is not as far away as we thing it is. The story gives you a set of glimpses into lives of people at different times in the history of the universe. It starts in modern times and concludes around the time the last brown dwarf in the universe is about to peter out and go dark. All the characters in the story have one thing in common – they just became aware of this end of times problem and are trying to see if there is a way to prevent it.

What changes is the perception. The characters living in the contemporary times or near future consider this just an abstract intellectual puzzle, not expecting to ever find a solution. But as the stars start dimming, the issue becomes a matter of life and death for those who are still around.

It is an interesting read. The whole story is available for free at the page I linked to. I definitely recommend checking it out. It really does put things in perspective.

Btw, I recommend using Readability on that page. It does not have margins defined in css (actually, I don’t think it uses CSS at all) so if you have a wide screen monitor like I do, the text just sprawls all across the screen. This causes each paragraph to be like 2-3 lines which IMHO makes reading a bit difficult. Some people like this type of wide pages, but I personally find them annoying.

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8 Responses to The problem to end all problems

  1. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    That is a great story, thanks for reminding me.

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  2. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I thought about this (and haven’t stopped doing so) since I finished reading Stephen Hawking’s first vulgarisation book, 20 years ago. The big crunch idea is interesting, from an intellectual point of view. But to answer the issue, if we can actually reverse entropy at any point in our future history as a specie, we will have actually become gods for all practical purposes. God = a being which can let entropy happen or reverse it.

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  3. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    The end is nigh!

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  4. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    That story is a reminder that we are all stuck in an infinite loop.

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  5. Ricardo DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Wow, the readability was a great tip! Thanks a lot!

    Will read Asimov later today.

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  6. NickC AUSTRALIA Opera Linux says:

    Just FYI, Stephen M. Baxter explores this very question in his Manifold series, in Time if I remember correctly.


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  7. gogi-goji CANADA Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I was playing around with with a little web app called I Write Like, which apparently uses some kind of algorithm to compare your writing to the works of famous authors. I found it somewhat ironic that with this blog post, you apparently write like Isaac Asimov.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ NickC:

    I’m adding that to my to-read list.

    @ gogi-goji:

    Heh, that app is a bit arbitrary. I tried couple of my posts and I got different writers:

    All the posts that were about internet or video games gave me Cory Doctorov.

    My post about space exploration gave me Douglass Adams.

    It’s like the analyzer looks for keywords and topics and matches them to particular writers rather than trying to match the writing style.

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