how it ends

Original an email sent on Jan. 15, 2011 :


It’s always taken me longer to finish an English book than a Chinese one.  I’ve finished reading 5 other Chinese books while reading this one (~concurrently): “how it ends: from you to the universe” by Chris Impey.  I’ve read Impey’s last book “The Living Cosmos” 1 or 2 years ago which I quite enjoyed and that experience has encouraged me to read this recent one of his (2010). Nevertheless, it’s a not a book of mystery or thriller that you find it difficult to put down.

Not right away, but I’m a bit surprised or uncomfortable when I noticed that he got funding from the Templeton Foundation in writing this book. But Impey doesn’t really pay any real attention to religion in this book and if anything it’s only teasing such as on p. 288 when he said that the inscription “Important if true” should be on the doors of all churches    I like this senior Arizona astrophysics professor and he seems to be an agnostic, probably a bit more acceptable by the Templeton Foundation compared to what another physicist Marcelo Gleiser calls “the likes of militant extremists” such as R. Dawkins (even though Gleiser is an atheist himself).

More important stuff ….

By trying to talk about how we or our universe ends, the author also discusses who we are and how we may have come into being. I had thought that this book would be about black holes, white/brown/black dwarfs, dark matter/energy etc., ie. those things I’ve learnt and read a lot. Thus I didn’t rush to read this book when I first came across it.  But in fact,  a lot of coverage is around living organisms from the primitive form to human beings or more intelligent ones elsewhere. This part probably overlaps a little bit with his last book “The Living Cosmos”. It’s a bit like a mongolian wok (probably not an appropriate analogy) where you can find subjects like leading causes of death in various epochs of human history, aging, cryonics, from photon, proton …to carbon to the formation of water, evolution, how the Earth may be destroyed by ourselves or more interesting to me the probability of being hit by asteriods/comets or gamma ray burst etc. etc. etc. Some I’ve known to various extents but some I just learn from this book.

I’ve always enjoyed the portions which may not be strictly scientific. Eg. talking about the death and then about the reincarnation, there comes the challenging question that (p. 38) “Suppose God wants to raise Socrates from the dead”, reproducing how much portion is really himself ?! The question gets more complicated as our cells are continusouly being replaced (as the average age of cells is ~10 years). Though the Universe expanses, the author tells you that your body doesn’t expand as they’re held together by atomic forces, which (in contrast) reminded me of a physicist estimating how much a body would have expanded in his General Relativity lecture a couple years ago.

Non-scientific remarks seem to be necessary in all scientific writings. On p. 89, when he talked about the possibility of bioterror and nuclear holocaust, he introduced his “sucker bet” that he bets all asset against the Nostradamus scenario (of any mythology etc.) because he’ll be richer if the world doesn’t end and if it does, he has no asset to be had anyway. I guess I make the same bet against all the other end-of-world scenarios …

When he talks about space disaster movies such as “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” (p.145), surprising, he said “bad acting trumps bad science”.  Hmm … I don’t quite agree about the bad acting … but the Catastrophe Calculator @ “” could be useful (though he omitted “arizona” in the URL  … and it now redirects you to an Imperial College site in UK).

I’ve also learnt that Edwin Hubble was a Rhodes Scholar which I don’t think I have been aware. A good member for the club to have…

The discussion about how the cosmic evolution may likely end ( such as dark energy keeping the Universe expand forever leading to the slow fizz or the big rip at the other end of the spectrum) doesn’t occupy the most number of pages. ( Good for me !) Only at the very end, he talks about multiverse, cyclic universe, and or us being just in a simulation — Nick Bostrom provided estimation for the the necessary number of operations — something quite achievable in the future by us. There, the author comments that we’re not sure whether the creator of “our simulation” (which we’re in) are simulated, too.  “Nobody knows how many levels of “reality” there could be” (p. 287). It reminds me of the multiple layers of dreaming in the movie of “Inception”…

The actual ending of the book “it doesn’t matter what happens in THE END” (“THE END” lonely occupying the last line) is like the aphorism of “Carpe diem” — a term I don’t remember which of my previous books (finished) has. … I guess that’s back to pragmatism.

I give it 5 stars in .



Misprints include :

⇒ Most interesting : p.168, the 2nd paragraph under “The Man in the Moon”, on the 2nd-3rd lines, it has “… Uranus has 27, Neptune and even the dwarf planets …”. “Neptune” should also be followed with “has” something but there wasn’t. Then, on the 4th-5th line: “…Titan orbits Saturn, Triton orbits Neptune has 13, and the other four …”. Suddenly “Neptune has 13” appears !   Obviously, “has 13” should be in the first sentence quoted above.  It’s taken me a minute to figure this out.

⇒ Most boring : p. 221, a typo : “enc ounter” (in the 4th complete paragraph,on the 5th line).


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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