yet another end of the world as we know it

Most people find it depressing to contemplate the ultimate fate of the universe. Will it recollapse in a Big Crunch, or expand forever, becoming cold and dark? Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and his colleagues have come up with an even more horrific theory, where the universe ends in a violent, accelerating expansion that rips everything from galaxies to atomic nuclei apart. The universe was born in a Big Bang billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since, driven by a force known as dark energy. Most scientists think the acceleration will stay constant or get weaker over time. But the “Big Rip” theory supposes that the dark energy fueling the acceleration is growing more powerful, creating an expansion so fast that it literally rips apart all matter. Sixty million years before the very end, dark energy will rip apart the Milky Way. A half-hour before the Big Rip, the Earth would fall apart. Finally, molecules and atoms would break apart and time as we know it would end. But buck up: Even if the Big Rip is true, it’s more than 20 billion years away.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 3/18/2003.
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