Will the Universe Eventually Freeze Solid?

December 29, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Frozen Earth
Photo credit: Kevin Gill/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Or maybe we will all get squished?

The Universe is dying, but luckily it is dying extremely slowly.  Slower than the death scene from the 1973 Turkish film Kareteci Kiz (I dare you to watch it on YouTube… it’s awful).  According to scientists from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia, the energy produced in some parts of the Universe is half of what it used to be just two billion years ago.

Although most scientists agree that the Universe will eventually die, as nothing can live forever, there is an ongoing debate about how it will kick the bucket.

If space is regarded as “open” (shaped like a saddle or flat) — meaning there is no boundary to its growth — there are two leading theories on how the Universe will end.

The Big Freeze

This is by far the most accepted possibility.  In this scenario, the Universe continues to expand, eventually to a state of zero thermodynamic free energy — no longer able to sustain motion or life.  In one hundred trillion years or so, the Universe will reach a state of maximum entropy at a temperature very close to absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) — the temperature at which atoms stop moving — making the Universe too cold to support life.  All existing stars would eventually burn out, leaving black holes, which would too evaporate as the Universe gets colder.  Thus leaving a Universe of cold, dead planets.

The Big Rip

In this scenario, the Universe will continue to accelerate without limit due to dark energy.  Eventually, the dark energy will become so strong that the Universe cannot handle its increasing speed, resulting in gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces ripping it apart.  This will result in galaxies, stars and eventually even individual atoms being torn apart, and as a consequence, a gravitational singularity will form.  Recent calculations say this will happen in a mere 22 billion years.

On the other hand, if space is regarded as “closed” (like the surface of a sphere) — meaning there is some limit to how big it can get — there are two popular theories.

The Big Crunch

The Big Crunch theory, like many others, is based on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.  In this scenario, around one hundred billion years from now, gravity will stop the expansion of the Universe and it will continue to collapse into itself until all the matter in the Universe forms a singularity — creating the largest black hole ever — a mirror image of the Big Bang.  The Universe will contract slowly at first, and increase over time, resulting in an exponential temperature increase that will cause stars to explode and vaporize.  Eventually even atoms and nuclei will break apart.  

The Big Bounce

I thought it would be best to end on a positive note.  The Big Bounce theory states that the Universe will never actually end.  It is similar to the Big Crunch in that the current universe will eventually collapse into itself, however the Big Bounce will result in another Big Bang — creating a new universe time and time again.  This theory is dependent on loop quantum gravity (LGQ), which is a way of unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity.  LGQ states that the universe is like a loop of woven fabric and that once the collapsed universe becomes more dense, it will once again expand as it reaches a certain size.

However, one of the major problems with these last two theories is that scientists discovered that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate, which would not be happening if there was a finite size to the Universe.  So it will mostly likely come down to freezing solid or being ripped apart.  Great...

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