The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)
Hardcover / eBook
Scribner, August 2020, 226 pages
Hello everyone, and hopefully you’re all having a wonderful new year so far. This month, however, I’d like to talk about a book that deals with endings—more specifically, the end of everything—but does so with grace, charm, and wit. The book, of course, is The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack, and it’s a wonderful dive into the inner structures of the universe, as well as how it all might come crashing together/start blowing apart/vanishing/you get the drift.
Now, we tend to cover a lot of science fiction in these reviews, both (a) because it allows us to extrapolate out from our current present to possible futures, good and bad; and (b) because who doesn’t want to put laser cannons on a T. Rex?; but the great thing about The End of Everything is that from start to finish it’s all science fact (or at least the facts as we know them at this time because hey, this is theoretical cosmology (not to be confused with theoretical cosmetology, which involves far more foundation)).
Throughout the book, Mack does an amazing job of distilling down important cosmological ideas like the Big Bang, the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background), and cosmic inflation to easily digestible chunks of information, while still making the reader aware of all the hard work and math that went into discovering these universal forces in the first place. Those of you familiar with Carl Sagan’s work will no doubt immediately think of his show Cosmos, or even Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time, but for my money Mack’s presentation has them both beat and requires absolutely no knowledge of physics to follow along (I’m also a sucker for footnotes and Mack has some Pratchett-esque ones tucked away at the bottom of multiple pages).
As a science-enthusiast-but-most-assuredly-not-a-scientist, I also greatly enjoyed Mack’s ability to weave in everyday examples of modern life while talking about things like why dark energy being a cosmological constant of less than -1 is Not Good, or explaining the peculiarities of Boltzmann brains (they’re spontaneous!), and her low-key sarcastic appreciation of Einstein is a delight. The fact that she also subtly works in pop-culture references and an eye for social inequities is just icing on the cake.
Now I know by this point, some of you are thinking, “wait a minute, the book is called The End of Everything, why are you so upbeat about it,” and yes, that’s a fair question for a book about how the entire universe and everything in it (naturally including us) is someday going to just . . . not be a thing anymore, but it’s impossible to read this book and not be entertained. First off, all the potential endings the book describes are either billions of years off or will literally happen instantaneously with no time to even process what’s happening, but more importantly, The End of Everything is clearly a book written by someone who loves science, and wants to share that love with as many people as possible.
To that end, I think the real reason why you should make time to read this particular work is because the underlying tale is about caring—for the world you live in, for how it came to be, and how one day it will be gone. Even though Mack’s subject matter involves stars boiling away, bubbles of deadly faster-than-light vacuum, or the very fabric of space itself ripping asunder, the emphasis isn’t on the destination, it’s on the journey. It’s about appreciating the people who constantly challenge themselves and how they view the world, always striving to understand just a little bit more, push humanity a little bit further. It’s about the little things (and in the case of quantum physics, that can be very small indeed), and how the grand and the miniscule are linked inextricably in ways that require patience and dedication to comprehend. It’s about how despite your best efforts, you still might not know the answer when it’s your time to exit the stage, but you might have built a foundation for someone else to reach higher and further than you could have ever dreamed.
Above all, The End of Everything is a book that confronts our ultimate fate with hope, optimism, and humor, and that’s a message I’d gladly see sent out to the stars.
Read if: you need to rekindle a sense of wonder in the face of a seemingly dark and uncaring universe; you’re wondering if there was anything Einstein didn’t discover; because SCIENCE.
Spread the word!