The ninth of March, 2011: each star we see in the sky is a sun like our own, beginning to die

Professor Brian Cox is everybloodywhere at the moment. There’s just no escaping him and his strangely sensuous lips. Which is good, because I like Professor Brian Cox (although I can take or leave his strangely sensuous lips).

He’s back on the BBC this month with Wonders Of The Universe. The Professor’s on-screen globetrotting has reached ludicrously gratuitous proportions, but apart from that I enjoyed the first episode – particularly Cox’s gripping account of the eventual deaths of the stars, the end of the stelliferous era (a new term for me), and the heat death of the universe.

Here’s a poem on the same subject by John Updike.

Ode to Entropy

Some day – can it be believed? –

In the year 1070 or so,

single electrons and positrons will orbit

one another to form atoms bonded

across regions of space

greater than the present observable universe.

‘Heat death’ will prevail.

The stars long since will have burnt their hydrogen

and turned to iron.

Even the black holes will have decayed.

Entropy!

thou seal on extinction,

thou curse on Creation.

All change distributes energy,

spills what cannot be gathered again.

Each meal, each smile,

Each foot-race to the well by Jack and Jill

scatters treasure, lets fall

gold straws once woven from the resurgent dust.

The night sky blazes with Byzantine waste.

The bird’s throbbling is expenditure,

and the tide’s soughing,

and the tungsten filament illumining my hand.

 

A ramp has been built into probability

the universe cannot re-ascend.

For our small span,

the sun has fuel, the moon lifts the lulling sea,

the highway shudders with stolen hydrocarbons.

How measure these inequalities

so massive and luminous

in which one’s self is secreted

like a jewel mislaid in mountains of garbage?

Or like that bright infant Prince William,

with his whorled nostrils and blank blue eyes,

to whom empire and all its estates are already assigned.

Does its final diffusion

deny a miracle?

The future voids are scrims of the mind,

pedagogic as blackboards.

 

Did you know

that four-fifths of the body’s intake goes merely

to maintain our temperature of 98.6°?

Or that Karl Barth, addressing prisoners, said

the prayer for stronger faith is the one prayer

that has never been denied?

Death exists nowhere in nature, not

in the minds of birds or the consciousness of flowers,

not even in the numb brain of the wildebeest calf

gone under to the grinning crocodile, nowhere

in the mesh of woods or tons of sea, only

in our forebodings, our formulae.

There is still enough energy in one overlooked star

to power all the heavens madmen have ever proposed.

Originally from Updike, Facing Nature: Poems (André Deutsch, 1986); I took it from The Faber Book Of Science, John Carey ed. (Faber, 1996). I’m not convinced of its qualities as a poem, but it’s a powerful theme and there’s some great phrase-making in there (‘mesh of woods or tons of sea’, ‘the bird’s throbbling is expenditure’, the final sentence (one hesitates to call it a couplet)).

That’s enough about the dismal death of the universe. One of the things I like best about Professor Brian Cox is that every time I see him I think of this, and snigger like a schoolchild.

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