Thursday, October 25, 2007

less than zero

What's greater than G-d
And worse than the devil?
Poor people have it,
Rich people want it,
And if you eat too much of it, you'll die.

The answer to the riddle is, of course, nothing, a topic on which there is a surprising amount to be said. The relationship of existence and nonexistence, of being and nothingness, has all the usual seductive force of paradox.

Ex nihilo nihil fit,” nothing comes from nothing, proclaims the Latin axiom and some of the sappier lyrics from The Sound of Music. If you truly believe that nothing can produce nothing but itself (one of those enormous ifs), the implication is that, contrary to at least one interpretation of Genesis, the universe could not have been created from a void, but must have been fashioned out of preexisting material.

Which is, I suppose, a rough approximation of the instinct behind the Big Bang theory. That story goes more or less like this. Once there was an unthinkably small, unthinkably hot, unthinkably dense something. Then something else -- the Big Bang -- happened and the galaxies have been running away from each other ever since.

But even if the world didn't begin in nothingness, I'm convinced it will end there. I've always subscribed to something resembling Archibald MacLeish's vision:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall*
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.

And, as long as we're contemplating the apocalypse -- a subject that's oddly, yet ineffably gratifying -- tell me what you think. Will the world will end with a bang or a whimper? In fire or in ice? Discuss.

*Originally and non-figuratively, a pall (also called a mort-cloth) was a piece of fabric used to cover a body or a casket. Did you know that? I certainly didn't.

edited to add: Okay. Stop whatever you're doing and go to Exit Mundi: a collection of end-of- the-world- scenarios. Casey, I can't possibly thank you enough for pointing the way to a site that is, for once, quite literally OF DOOM!!!!


Tash said...

One of my father's mentors, an astrophysicist who believed we ultimately sprung from the chemical content of meteorites crashing into a planet containing some other fun stuff, said:

"All of us, are truly and literally, a little bit of stardust." -- William Fowler

I love that quote. It's mystic, yet gratifyingly (?) scientifically sound. And I think we'll all return to the cosmos as chemical whatnot, and thus I guess it all depends on what your vision of the universe is: bang or whimper? While I tend to think the universe is fairly impressive, I'm not so sure we as a species are. i think we'll limp back to stardust.

Magpie said...


And from pall, you get pall-bearer.

LawMommy said...

I tend to think that we'll manage to blow ourselves up...and that the universe, in it's vastness, will hardly blink.


Beruriah said...

I certainly don't know. I don't think a whimper though. Although it might sound like one from far enough away, I tend to think on a more local scale.

thailandchani said...

I believe the universe is infinite and self-perpetuating. While human beings might destroy this planet (in that it will be unable to sustain life), it will go on, too.

Cate said...

Good topic for a beautiful fall morning! I tend to agree with lawmommy. Something will happen to the Earth but it won't matter because in the vastness of the universe the Earth blowing up will be like a dead skin cell falling off of a body.
Whatever the case, I've got my towel ready.

Casey said...

I vote whimper.

If you're interested in apocalypses, I suggest checking out this site.

painted maypole said...

I am always confused by people who say that the universe had to start with SOMETHING, because then where did that "something" come from? something else? I am not a strict believer in creation as outlined in Genesis, yet matter had to start somewhere, and no one can yet explain where that first bit of matter came from that started the universe. So big bang I can buy... but it doesn't change the fact that somewhere along the line the stuff had to be created.

As for the end of the world. I really have no idea, and frankly don't worry to much about it, although if I had to guess I would say there would be some kind of massive human induced explosion or meltdown, which may then lead to the slow dying off of everything.

Zee said...

I'm not sure what I really believe, but all I could think of was one of my favorite Robert Frost poems:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Lori said...

My comment turned into a post.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question. It really forced me to sit and think and clarify.

The Town Criers said...

I'm going to go with ice simply because it's closer to water than fire. But damn, I am terrified of the concept of seaside towns becoming nothing. And the water creeping inland until Kansas is waterlogged. Perhaps a doomsday sort of prediction, but still...

Can I just say that I'm pleased with myself because I came up with the answer to the riddle before reading the answer. Does that make me smaaaaaaaaaaaaaht? Which is different, of course, than the traditional "smart."

slouching mom said...

Love that Robert Frost poem.

Kris said...

Mm. The whole "something out of nothing" thing is what honestly baffles me - if you do not believe in God, then the something that came out of nothing, well, it did have to get there somehow, didn't it? And if God created that something, then where did God come from?

Lori said...

Oh Niobe... why must you give me a headache on such a sunny day?? :)

Can I just say, I have no idea? But can I also add, in my Pollyanna way, that I do believe that it will all be okay.

Christine said...


god i don't even want to guess. . .

Furrow said...

Me no thinking too good right now, and you ask this?!!

The idea of the origins and end and edges of the universe started spooking me out and keeping me awake at 5 years old. It would give me an icy feeling, so I'll go with that.

Furrow said...

Oh, but if time is really circular, if all moments are happening at once, are all of these beginning and ending questions moot? I think there's some answer in one of the Douglas Adam's books -- Restaurant at the End of the Universe -- but I can't remember the specifics.

Road Blocks and Roller Coasters said...

Funny enough (or sad enough), G and I were having this exact same discussion last night. I was telling him that my mother raised me with the idea that the world was going to end any minute now and I basically have waited for doom to hit ever since.

I think it will end with a series of bangs followed by the faint whispers of what remains, until nothing remains at all. I hope not to be a part of those whispers, as the bang seems a lot faster and a lot less telling. If I'm around for the whispers then I'll be around for the realization of what has happened. And in that particular instance, I do believe that ignorance would certainly be bliss.

Kami said...

How will the universe end or how will human existence end? I think you mean the universe which will surely last billions of years longer than humans will.

Collapse and then re-expand again? Perhaps it will never end but just keep changing.

How is that for a non-answer?

T said...

Why will the world end?