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Review: How It Ends

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How It Ends: From You to the Universe
by Chris Impey
W.W. Norton, 2010
hardcover, 352 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-393-06985-3

One of the fundamental curiosities of humanity is how things end. The simplest way to satisfy that curiosity is to just sit things out to the end, but sometimes we don’t have the patience to do so—hence the urge, in more mundane matters, to thumb ahead a few chapters in a book or check a spoiler about a TV series to see if it’s worth our while to continue—while in other cases we simply won’t be around to witness the end. The latter is particularly true in astronomy, which has its share of endings that will take billions of years to play out. For those who want some hints about how those things will end—or at least could end—Chris Impey offers some insights in the aptly-titled How It Ends.

How It Ends is an entertaining read that covers a diverse range of topics, with interesting diversions along the way.

Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, takes something of a Powers of Ten approach to his book, starting with how a human life ends and working his way out all the way to the end of the universe (and the potential existence of multiverses, lest one think that the end of the universe is the ultimate denouement). While Impey’s professional background is in astronomy, his book covers much broader ground: the first half of the book, in fact, is primarily focused on topics like biology, geology, and even actuarial science; only in the second half, as we spiral out from Earth into the solar system, galaxy, and universe, do we enter the realm of planetary science, astronomy, and cosmology.

One of the recurring themes to How It Ends is that we don’t know the answers to how most subjects addressed in the book do end. Sometimes it’s because of a lack of knowledge about our place in the universe: for example, 15 years ago the idea that the universe was expanding at an accelerating rate would have been dismissed by most astronomers; now it’s widely accepted thanks to extensive observational evidence, even if we don’t understand the dark energy driving it. In other cases, closer to home, it’s because our future, individually and as a society, is very much in our hands and full of uncertainties. Impey even addresses at the end of the book the idea that our universe is nothing but a simulation—suggesting that “how it ends” could be someone hitting the reset button.

Even if there are few concrete answers to these questions, How It Ends is an entertaining read that covers a diverse range of topics, with interesting diversions along the way. (For example: in the chapter about the end of the Sun, Impey spends a few pages on space travel, with a wholehearted endorsement of the latest developments in commercial spaceflight. Why? Because if humanity is to survive in the long run, we’ll have to expand beyond Earth, and government spaceflight doesn’t seem to be making much progress.) At the end of the book, Impey gets a little philosophical… wait, that’s not fair, telling you how How It Ends ends. As in life and the universe, there are no spoilers.