I dimly recall a talk by the critic and polymath George Steiner (1929-2020) worrying himself to near multiorgan failure about the consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The law itself is much more complicated and limited than the way Steiner used it or as I am going to use it here. I’ll just say in a closed system entropy always increases. The Nobel Prize winning physicist P.W. Bridgman got to the kernel of the law – There have been nearly as many formulations of the second law as there have been discussions of it. For this piece, I assume the inevitable heat death of the universe. That was what was worrying Steiner. “Not a note of Mozart or a word of Shakespeare will survive,” is my recollection of his distress.
Incidentally, Steiner taught English at Williams College when I was a freshman there. He was a charismatic figure even at age 24. His career was long and distinguished, yet some other polymaths found his flashy erudition shallow and off putting. No matter, I’ll stick with his fear of the future.
Great erudition and intelligence seems to breed strange worries. John Stuart Mill was very concerned about the supply of good melodies; he thought that their number was finite and hence exhaustible. This worry was expressed when Verdi was still active, Puccini a child, and Gershwin not even a gamete. But considering the state of music today, he likely was right. Popular music seems to have entirely eschewed melody. Rap music is just rhymed chants. Classical music and opera are tuneless. So maybe all the good melodies have already be written and like the dodo are gone for good.
Steiner’s fear of the heat death of the universe ignores the fate of much more than the loss of music and poetry. If it really happens everything from squirrels to quarks are gone. The extinction of the stars – ie, when they go dark because they’ve used up all their fuel – is billions of years in the future. Doubtless, homo sapiens will be gone billions of years before universal darkness.
Of course, assuming one knows the fate of the universes is hubris in the extreme. Currently it appears to be expanding at an increasing rate. Modern cosmology, as is true of physics in general, is so far removed from ordinary human experience and understanding that one can’t really fathom what an expanding universe is, an expansion only apparent from doppler shifts and complicated mathematics. We’re told that the universe appeared from nothing and then inflated in the first 10−32 seconds to some incomprehensible size and continued to expand such that it currently could have a minimum diameter of 23 trillion light years. And Steiner worried about the persistence of The Magic Flute and Romeo and Juliet?
The more we learn about science the more magical the realities of existence appear. And even more remarkable is the existence of invisible matter and undetectable energy aptly called dark. We don’t know how this incredible apparatus (the universe) got started, why it continues to accelerate, and if it will continue to balloon away as its lights go out eons from now. We don’t really know the ultimate fate of the universe. We won’t know if we got it right or not because of the unfathomable time and distance involved. Open, closed, flat, or whatever is there any impact on a species only 200,000 years old compared to a cosmos 13.8 billion years old and trillions of light years in diameter?
So while Steiner was worrying about the heat death of the universe which was (maybe) the inevitable result of cosmic inflation, my time horizon doesn’t go much beyond next week. Shakespeare and Mozart will have to find avatars with a longer span of reference. My concerns are about the imminent heat death of my wallet. My only care about inflation is the money kind, not the cosmic.
Bridgeman’s quip about the 2nd law could be used for inflation – just put inflation in place of the second law. I’ll just define inflation as a condition during which prices go up faster than income. The same people who describe the epistemological and eschatological properties of the universe can add definitions more finely wrought than mine. Not a note of Mozart or a word of Shakespeare can help my (and your) exchequer. We are economic quarks.
The dollar’s death will antedate that of the universe by untold orders of magnitude; but it will be a cosmic event like its distant celestial cousin. Those responsible for the currency’s care seem more interested in the weather than in the economic consequences of a monetary big bang. What a wonder is man. He has a span of little more than eight decades and yet can deeply ponder events so distant that not a trace of a single gene of his will survive, no matter how selfish, and yet not understand anything that’s happening as he lives his brief spot in the light. The same guy who wonders about the fate of the cosmos can’t do a single task necessary for his survival. This same ultra minimalist has an opinion about everything he can’t do.
I have a learned friend who thinks we live in a computer simulation. Which world the guy who built and operates the computer which is running our lives in doesn’t seem to trouble him. He (the guy running the simulation) likely lives in another simulation and on and on until the heat death of the universe. Which universe? I don’t know. But I’m sure it will be taxed without adjustment for inflation.