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Book Review: How It Ends by Chris Impey

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British astronomer Chris Impey’s 2010 book, How It Ends: From You To The Universe is a classic sort of science book for the masses: it takes a topic all have an interest in (death) and expands it into something beyond the immediate. On the negative side, the book’s main flaw (albeit a minor one) is that it does not focus too strongly on actual endings, as it takes digressive turns into philosophy and minutiae. On the positive side, the book never bogs down in jargon, abstruseness, or extended discussions of either. This means that its 290-page text had no long patches that your average reader will just skip through because “this doesn’t interest me.”

Impey is not a great wordsmith, but his probing mind and the very subject that interests him more than makes up for that. The book balances readability, depth, and an ability to reframe old arguments. The book’s 12 chapters expand outward from human and mortal bodily death to the deaths of species, the deaths of biospheres, the death of life on earth, to the possible deaths of other planets, the sun, the galaxy, the universe, and maybe even the omniverse (or as Impey calls it, the multiverse — a term that is somewhat less inclusive than omniverse).

His preface opens with a quote from the poet Muriel Rukeyser that asserts that “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” To this, Impey assents. But in doing so it shows that he has the mind of a discoverer, as Daniel J. Boorstin would call scientists, not a creator, or artist. In fact, atoms ARE stories. The human capacity for narrative stems from its very physical building blocks. Recent studies have shown that sentience runs quite deeply into the very matter of things. Some unicellular microbes seem to ruminate when given an obstacle to overcome. Nonetheless, the book does pick up from that poor premise. By page 38, in musing on bodily death, Impey takes on materialism and resurrection and cleverly states that “if God can reassemble the atoms that comprised Socrates at the moment of his death in 399 BC, He can also assemble the atoms that comprised Socrates when he was much younger, in 440 BC. In fact, because there’s no overlap in the sets of atoms, he could assemble both side by side.”

The book then goes off into what constitutes life, and on to how life may exist in ways that we simply are not able to recognize. Then it veers into the familiar territory of the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock and his biggest supporter, microbiologist Lynn Margulis. While most readers of this review will likely be familiar with the idea that the earth is a giant living being, of sorts, whose biosphere acts as a regulating device to sustain its own livability, Impey does point out more pessimistic viewpoints, such as those of geologists Dougal Dixon and Peter Ward. Personally, I am not as high on Gaia as its supporters, but neither am I as bleak as Ward. Interestingly, Impey points out Lovelock’s increasing pessimism on mankind’s fate in contrast to Margulis’s enthusiasm and optimism.

After a sojourn into the Snowball Earth theory, and a recounting of the 1908 Tunguska Event, Impey wades into the debate over Panspermia, and is decidedly negative; at least on a cosmic version of it. Locally, within the solar system, he sees it as possible; but ends a chapter with this: “there’s no natural way that life can spread through the Galaxy. Life on Earth shares the commonality of its genetic material; it’s all one thing. Life in the Milky Way will be as diverse and distinctive as the environments that give rise to it.” Yet, in the chapter, he actually sketches out the very ways it could spread through the galaxy, and, indeed, the cosmos, given enough time, so his pessimism seems borne more of a personal bias than scientific induction.

By page 163, Impey makes a really good point when he states that “it’s common for the ideas of scarceness and specialness to be conflated,” for the same equation of uniqueness with specialness, among PC types, plagues the arts. Of course, all people are unique to the 100th percent, but most people are frustratingly similar to the 98th or 99th percent. In Impey’s case his argument is against the above-mentioned Ward’s Rare Earth Hypothesis, which, of course, leads into a take on the Athropic Principle, in several guises. All of this is handled well, but then Impey’s bias trips him up again, on page 242, when he writes of advances in technology that would seem unimaginable in the past, then turns ridiculously gloomy re: the future development of faster-than-light travel.

Yet, nothing of real substance is posited as backing this pessimism. Fermi’s Paradox is given little mention, and just as well as it’s the non-paradox example of a paradox that those not in the know always fall back on. Impey then takes on the idea that we could be a computer simulation, and the logical corollary that our creator could be but a simulation. Unfortunately, Impey lets this dangle, and does not push the cause to extremis: that, somewhere, underlying all, is a base reality, which then renders any potential simulations “real,” just because they are made by “reality,” at some level. In other words, if it seems real it is real to those who experience this; and this “reality” was known eons ago, and best summed up in Rene Descartes’s Meditations On First Philosophy: “Cogito ergo sum.”

The book ends with a rephrase of the old saw of life being the journey not the destination. I’d add, though, that, despite physical endings, and the possibility of immortality for sentient individuals or races, mere existence IS immortality. To have been is always to be, at least in spacetime. Or, more poetically, the scratch left by a life is more important than the scratcher (or his intent). Thus posited, this portion of Impey’s claws have scratched well, if not drawn blood.

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