I had a dream about the end of the world. It was caused by hearing a promo for a segment on National Public Radio's "Science Friday" program. I was only half-listening, but something about the woman's cheerful alto cut through the mix.
"It would be a totally inescapable bubble of doom," she said, with a little laugh in her voice that made me think I would like her if I ever met her at a cocktail party. But then I tuned out the radio and thought about other things and switched over to a satellite station that was playing Jason and the Scorchers. I thought I'd forgotten about the end of the world.
But that night I had a vivid dream. I cast this dream like a movie, with Ben Affleck playing a hockey-loving photographer and Ellen Degeneres as his interior designer wife, who is becoming increasingly impatient with Ben's inability to face the practical challenges of adulthood.
About two-thirds through the dream, there's a scene where Ben is standing in the living room of a high-rise apartment in some eastern metropolis, studying the dramatic nighttime skyline.
As he's looking out over the lights of this city, which might be Philadelphia, he sees concentric rings of purple and lime begin to flash in the sky, a stuttering rhythm. He knows thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of other people also see it and know that it is signaling the imminent arrival of the "totally inescapable bubble of doom" that the NPR woman was talking about.
But he also knows there are people, like Ellen, who is sitting in the hallway around the corner with her back against the wall, lost in her own lonely thoughts, who don't see this terrifying and beautiful thing in the sky and who, for now and maybe forever, don't know that the world is ending.
And now Ben, who has always been (in my dream) me, feels the urge to call Ellen to the window and have her witness the inevitable apocalypse that will atomize their cosmos and erase Shakespeare and Donald Trump and racial hatred and every other thing our species has ever made.
But he doesn't. He just stands there, and when she calls to him that it is time to leave, he says all right and they take an elevator down to the basement garage and get in the 1972 Chevy Nova I owned when I was 20 years old and drive home.
When I woke up I flicked around on my iPad for a few seconds and found that "Science Friday" story--"Understanding Our Inevitable Cosmic Apocalypse"--and listened to the entire 191/2-minute segment. The woman is Katie Mack, a theoretical cosmologist and professor of physics at North Carolina State University and the author of a new book (her first) called "The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)."
She is apparently very good at social media and does the Lord's work outreaching on behalf of science to the sort of people who listen indolently to promos for "Science Friday" on NPR and think that maybe they ought to know more about dark matter and black holes and quantum field theory.
She is apparently a big deal I should be embarrassed for not knowing about.
She presented as adorable on the "Science Friday" segment, and even made me feel somewhat better about the absolutely certain-no doubt about it-nothing matters and what if it did eventual annihilation of everything we ever loved or hated or wondered about.
C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Tears in rain.
The "Science Friday" segment was very interesting, and made me want to get a copy of "The End of Everything," which Scribner's will now probably send to me. But I don't think I'll become obsessed with the end of the world and the various ways our universe might be snuffed out. I doubt I'll be around to see it and doubt it will announce itself by anything as dramatic as the flashing circles the special-effects department of my unconscious mind produced for my dream.
Like Mack, I hope it is vacuum decay that gets us. It's quick and elegant. I'm not saying I entirely grasped what she was saying, but she led me to believe that if we are around to experience the end, we won't really experience it, at least not in the way we might experience a fire or a riot or a car crash or a summer afternoon. It will just be over, a complete erasure of the universe, pre-ordained by something--not necessarily a flaw--deep in the design.
And all the current calculations seem to favor it, though as we have been told, there are unknown unknowns and our observable universe is limited to how far back in time we can see. The oldest light that reaches us might have traveled for a billion years, but there is no way to know what lies beyond that. There is no way to know if some palm holds the cosmos.
Understanding the limitations of language and the inability of a cicada to make its thoughts known, I don't find this incompatible with any religious tradition. But it might discomfit a literal-minded and petty faith. In theory, knowing that all is for naught might encourage nihilism, or at least contribute to a certain lack of industry. People might, in good faith and from cynicism, reject the idea that there is no forever.
But in practice, but for a few Bartlebys and tragedies, we all strive. We all push back the thoughts of mortality to the point where we might really believe in the future, though we know it's not promised and one day the deliveries will be suspended. We all still go to work, if we are fortunate to have work to do.
We all still dream.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.