The book that answers the ultimate question

Long game: The Universe’s total lifespan could be 100 trillion trillion trillion years. © Greg Kessler

Does life have any meaning? A hugely important new book called Until the End of Time has just been published by leading physicist Brian Greene. Here are the key points he makes.

It’s the question we all face occasionally – and, usually, set aside for later. What is the meaning of life? Now one of the world’s top thinkers, renowned for his discoveries in superstring theory, has written a book with his answer.

A daunting 400-pages long, it is subtitled, “Mind, matter and the search for meaning in an evolving universe”. Here, to make things easier, is his thesis in six paragraphs.

The Universe will end. The two great principles of the Universe are evolution (things are constantly coming together in new combinations) and entropy, which means that everything falls apart after time. They are constantly fighting it out, but entropy will win in the end. The Universe will become ever bigger and colder, the sun will go out, and even atoms will dissolve.

Everything is connected. It is wrong to see ourselves as separate from the rest of the Universe. We are literally made of stardust (matter from stars that exploded) and everything about us, including our ability to think, has evolved according to the same laws as everything else. Recognising that we are part of a much greater reality lets us see our lives in an exciting new way.

Humans are significant. In cosmic terms, human existence is the blink of an eye. Yet in science and the arts, we have achieved extraordinary things that may not be matched in a billion years. Striving for such achievements, together with our love for others, is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

Science should respect religion. Science does not have all the answers. It is useful in exploring external reality, but there are other ways of trying to understand life. Religion helps us explore our own consciousness and our place in the Universe as a whole.

Schools test too much. Science is not about passing exams. There is no single way to solve a problem: what matters is looking for answers in inventive ways. Education should aim to free young minds to think creatively and originally.

Time travel is possible. If you travelled in a rocket at close to the speed of light for six months, and then returned to Earth, you would find that thousands of years had passed. We just need to develop the right rocket.

What does this all add up to? Does life have any meaning?

Mind over matter

Some say that because we are such tiny specks in a vast universe, it is ridiculous to think that our lives have any purpose or significance. It is a fluke that our planet happens to support life, and equally lucky that we have evolved into what we are. If we did not exist, it would make no difference to anything in the great scheme of things. Our eventual extinction will go unnoticed.

Others argue that it is precisely because we are tiny specks that we can be said to have a purpose. Logically, a race of our size should be of no significance whatsoever. But it is perverse to pretend that a work of art like the Mona Lisa, or a discovery like superstring theory, is of no importance. If we have the ability to achieve such things, pursuing them must be our reason for being here.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to travel in a rocket that took you thousands of years into the future?
  2. Is there any point in discussing a question to which there can be no definite answer?

Activities

  1. Brian Greene compares history to a skyscraper, with the Universe becoming 10 times older with every floor you climb. We are now at the 10th floor. Draw a skyscraper and label the age reached at each floor, with the first floor as year 10, the second floor as year 100, and so on.
  2. Imagine that you have an opportunity to interview Brian Greene. Make a list of eight questions about the Universe that you would like to ask him.

Some People Say...

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

The Dalai Lama, Tibetan religious leader

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Seeking the meaning of life has challenged the greatest minds in human history. There has long been a divide between religious thinkers, who believe that we have been created with a particular purpose, and scientists, who see humans as lucky products of the laws of nature. Brian Greene was drawn to physics because there was no generally agreed answer. “Instead, I got interested in the context: not why am I here, but how did I come to be here?”
What do we not know?
Whether scientists will ever produce a theory which explains all the workings of the Universe. Brian Green does not believe that they will. The best they can do is come up with a provisional one, based on observation, experiments, and analysis, and then test it to see whether it collapses under scrutiny. “When it does, we come up with even more powerful ideas to take us the next step forward.”

Word Watch

Renowned
Famous.
Superstring theory
The scientific idea that all the particles and fundamental forces in the world interconnect, as if they were the vibrations of tiny strings.
Evolution
The process by which things develop from their basic forms into more sophisticated ones. The most important explanation of it was Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Entropy
The laws of physics state that energy of all kinds disperses if there is nothing to stop it from doing so. Entropy is the measure of the disorder that results.
Fluke
A stroke of luck.
Perverse
Showing a deliberate and stubborn desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable.
Mona Lisa
A portrait by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), considered to be one of the world’s greatest paintings.

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