One of the fathers of the Big Bang was sitting across the aisle from me on the train, so I introduced myself. I had seen P.J.E. Peebles speak at a conference in Washington that afternoon at the National Museum of Natural History, and now we made small talk about this and that: the weather, a mutual acquaintance, the end of the universe. Then we shook hands and went our separate ways. But for the rest of the ride between Washington and Princeton, where he got off, I couldn’t help glancing across the aisle every so often and marveling at how recent our present conception of the cosmos is, that at any moment one of its founders might be sitting among us on a train, chatting with his wife and sipping a Budweiser.
It can be difficult to remember this when we look up at the night sky. Indeed, it is entirely possible to study the celestial vault and assume it to be eternally unchanging, as people did for thousands of years. It does change. We know that now. We watchers of the sky at the end of the twentieth century and the second millennium can take in stride that if we could see the heavens of 25,000 years into the future or into the past—or a million years, or a billion years—they wouldn’t look the same. Some parts would, of course, but others would be just enough out of alignment to seem more like glimpses into some seemingly identical yet maddeningly different parallel universe—which is, in fact, what they’d be. And that’s what’s easy to overlook on a day-to-day, or night-to-night, basis: The universe we inhabit is alive in time, a mutating organism, a work in progress complete with beginning, middle and, maybe, end. It was the end of the universe that had brought me to Washington on a warm, wet Sunday afternoon—specifically, a symposium on the eventual fate of the cosmos. I had invited my son to accompany me, and knowing that he’d find the conference itself dull, dull, dull, I’d planned a detour first, past something I imagined any seven-year-old would find irresistibly fascinating: dinosaurs.
I was wrong. We got to the museum early enough to stroll through the vast dinosaur halls at a leisurely pace, but after a few minutes my son was practically racing past the creatures, granting them barely a glance. It took me several more minutes to realize why. Partly it was because he’d seen dinosaurs on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History back home in New York. But partly he couldn’t react to these behemoths with what I considered the requisite awe and honor because he couldn’t comprehend the implications of their existence, and of their extinction. To him, they were neither freaks of evolution nor harbingers of mortality. They were just so many stuffed animals and stacks of bones from tens of millions of years ago—neat, to be sure, but hey, what’s next?
Then he saw the video monitor. (Of course, I sighed to myself, TV.) It was in the next room, a hall devoted to geological eras, and across the screen danced an animated reenactment of continental drift in reverse chronological order: This is what the Earth looked like 200 million years ago…400 million years ago…800 million years ago. My son drew nearer, watching as the familiar geographic shapes of today lost their moorings and began to drift, bumped together like boats in a harbor after a hurricane, until they finally fused into one single primordial land mass.
Is that still happening? he wanted to know. Are the continents still moving?
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.