'The Universe Is Slowly Dying'

0811_VistaTelescope_Jack
The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) was one of several that scientists used to survey the energy output of the universe. The results of a new study find that the universe's total energy has decreased over billions of years. Yuri Beletsky/ESO

"Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death."

—Pamela Zoline, "The Heat Death of the Universe"

In 1967, the writer Pamela Zoline published a short story called "The Heat Death of the Universe" in the U.K.'s New Worlds sci-fi magazine. The story follows a day in the life of a depressed housewife, growing increasingly obsessed with the idea that the universe is dying. Scientists have long theorized that the energy in the known universe is dissipating over time; a new study released this week by a group of researchers at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) confirms Sarah Boyle's fears. "The Universe is slowly dying," says a press release about the study, which was formally presented on August 10 at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu.

The researchers, led by Simon Driver of the University of Western Australia, used several of the world's most powerful telescopes to accurately measure the energy output of 200,000 galaxies. Measuring energy across 21 wavelengths—from ultraviolet to infrared—the study was the most comprehensive survey of the universe's energy ever conducted. The researchers concluded that the total amount of energy in the universe (as measured by nuclear fusion in galaxies' stars) is only half of what it was 2 billion years ago.

"The universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age. The universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze," Driver said in the release. The total death of the universe—if it happens—would take billions of more years, so there's no reason to panic.

The new study is part of the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, which is mapping the position and history of known galaxies. The video below shows a 3-D "fly through" of GAMA's galaxy map.

Astronomers believe that all of the universe's mass and energy was created by the Big Bang. Energy from the primordial explosion is locked up in the mass of stars and is released when stars burn (which is what causes them to produce light). The IAU's new study illustrates the idea that over billions of years, the universe will "cool off," as light and heat spread out. This theory has been popularized in culture through the concept of "entropy," an expression of a physical law that states that all energy in a system moves toward a minimum.

Perhaps the new survey will inspire another generation of Zolines. In the '60s, talking about the end of the universe as a function of entropy was all the rage in fiction. Writers like Thomas Pynchon (in an early short story called "Entropy") and William Burroughs (in the novel Nova Express) seized upon the topic as a background upon which to paint existential fears of the apocalypse.