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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Dec-18 > The end of all our exploring

The end of all our exploring

Human beings won’t go on forever, and nor does their ability to grapple with eternity

The end of all our exploring

Human beings won’t go on forever, and nor does their ability to grapple with eternity

The Sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it’s got around six billion years more before its fuel runs out. It will then flare up, engulfing the inner planets. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human— they’ll be as different from us as we are from a bug. Post-human evolution could be as prolonged as the Darwinian evolution that has led to us.

And evolution is now accelerating; it can happen via intelligent design on a technological time-scale, operating far faster than natural selection and driven by advances in genetics and in artificial intelligence (AI). The long-term future probably lies with electronic rather than organic life.

In cosmological or Darwinian terms, a millennium is but an instant. So let us fast forward not for a few centuries or millennia, but for an astronomical timescale millions of times longer than that. The stellar births and deaths in our galaxy will gradually proceed more slowly, until jolted by the environmental shock of an impact with the Andromeda Galaxy, maybe four billion years hence. The debris of our galaxy, Andromeda and their smaller companions—which now make up what is called the Local Group—will thereafter aggregate into one amorphous swarm of stars. Many billions of years after that, gravitational attraction will be overwhelmed by a mysterious force latent in empty space that pushes galaxies apart from each other. Galaxies accelerate away and disappear over a horizon. All that will be left in view, after 100bn years, will be the dead and dying stars of our Local Group, which could continue for trillions of years. Against the darkening background, sub-atomic particles such as protons may decay, dark matter particles annihilate and black holes evaporate—and then silence.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Timothy Garton Ash and David Allen Green assess Brexit and ask whether it’s too late for things to change. Garton Ash explains how Brexit is just one part of a fracturing Europe and that it might not be too late for the UK’s situation—or that of the rest of Europe—to change. Green takes apart the “shambolic” way that Britain has approached Brexit and suggests a number of options that parliament should strongly consider if minister are to change their views. Elsewhere in the issue: Jo Glanville visits a rural GP surgery and exposes the crises that are played out day-in-day-out all over the country. Stephen Phelan suggests that Spain’s decision to exhume General Franco’s remains threatens to disturb more than his bones. Martin Rees writes about our dreams of understanding the entire universe—and how we may never be able to satisfy that desire.