On the edge of nothingness
Some look at the world we live in and see it maintained, full of purpose. Let's follow a rough history of our reality and a possible future history as well, and see what things look like.
The Planck Scale. There are no clocks, and could be no clocks, but our imaginary clock ticks every 10(-44) seconds.
This is a time of heat and light, the universe is full of rich activity. Time is strange, before and after intermingled. Then, a clock tick and time's direction settles. Waves of space and time echo back and forth, particles of all sizes appear, disappear and collide, there is one force binding matter and energy into a unity. Cooling starts, the forces start to separate and then: Explosion of space, faster and faster it goes, driven by the separation energy, on and on it goes, the negative gravity stretching space far faster than light, doubling and re-doubling each volume over and over again. Quantum ripples in space of the smallest size are stretched and flattened into nothing. The clock ticks and ticks, space doubles and doubles. After a long, long time, the explosion stops. The last quantum ripples remain, and the energy of the slowing inflation fills everywhere with hot particles. It's cold, so very cold. It's not the slightest fraction of the starting heat. Things are slow, the universe is running down. Only a few particles are made now, and they drift slowly across space, occasionally meeting their opposites and annhialating. Space is almost empty.
Rescale. Clock tick time is from a millionth of a second to a second.
There is such heat: this is the time of plasmas, the first of quarks and the force-carrier gluons. The universe is a hot sea of colours, strangeness, charm, top, bottom, up, down, the quantum labels of the quarks and their forces. Exponentially, things cool as the universe slowly expands, until the photon types split: light with no mass carries electromagnetic waves without limit. Light with mass has limited time to move and carries the weakest force, felt by neutrinos. Growing and cooling, the first plasma clears as the quarks condense like drops in a mist into protons and neurons, the baryons. Large are the baryons, barely there, a triplet of quarks held by the strong force, which strangely weakens at close range, but look closely at a quark – it may be a string, a vibrating strand. Imagine that strand as three feet in length, vibrating in dimensions too strange to see. How big is a boson? It's a galaxy. Three particles in a milky way volume. This is a bleak reality, a few specs of matter and energy barely there in almost nothing.
Rescale. Clock ticks slow from seconds to millennia.
Now we see the elements start to form, protons and neutrons pulled together by the residue of the force between quarks. Time passes, years, decades, centuries, hundreds of thousands of years. Electrons condense into orbits around the boson clusters. The second plasma clears and atoms form. Time drifts on and on. Gases condense, settling into stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies. Dark matter is drawn to these centres of gravity, forming a deep sea of mass.
For a very brief time the stars burn, explode, condense, burn, explode, condense. On a rock around one star complexity is fueled by the light and life as we know it appears. One species spreads to space.
The cycle of the suns is done. The star dwarves give off a red glow for a trillion years, and the galaxies spin like chains of rubies. Then darkness. Cold. Emptiness.
Rescale. Clock ticks slow from a billion years to a trillion years and beyond.
The black holes spin and sparkle. Civilizations farm black holes for fuel, the twisting space around them providing energy beyond imagining. The sky is filled with quasars, beaming energy across the light-millenia. This is the true era of life, not the brief flicker of the fusion stars. Life carries on through the powers of ten of time, the trillions of trillions of years.
Even the black holes decay. There is nothing left. Dark and cold re-scaled by powers of powers of ten. There is nothing but the vaccum, everywhere and forever. Except... in orbits tens of billions of light years wide, electrons circle positrons, forming positronium.
Rescale. Clock ticks too long to imagine.
Positronium atoms dance across the universe.. forming … what? What have we seen? At each scale there is furious activity, both chaos and order. As these fade to nearly nothing, a change of perspective takes us back to a reality of action and energy. Will the universe ever really run down to nothing? Perhaps not, when time seems close to eternal at each scale there is always more, and who knows what there might be when the universe is experienced on a scale so long that the time of black holes is to that time what a Planck tick is to ours?
Our universe is falling apart - we are made of the cold ashes of an earlier furnace - but as it falls, there is much that can happen, there are new wonders. A universe maintained would be dull beyond imagination, and certainly not like this one. Far better for us to be creatures of fragile complexity in a world that is always on the edge of nothingness.