2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, the University of Southern California; Author, Noise

Why The Sun Still Shines

One of the deepest explanations has to be why the sun still shines—and thus why the sun has not long since burned out as do the fires of everyday life. That had to worry some of the sun gazers of old as they watched campfires and forest fires burn through their life cycles. It worried the nineteenth-century scientists who knew that gravity alone could not account for the likely long life of the sun.

It sure worried me when I first thought about it as a child.

The explanation of hydrogen atoms fusing into helium was little comfort. It came at the height of the duck-and-cover cold-war paranoia in the early 1960s after my father had built part of the basement of our new house into a nuclear bomb shelter. The one-room shelter came complete with reinforced concrete and metal windows and a deep freeze packed with homemade TV dinners.

The sun burned so long and so brightly because there were in effect so many mushroom-cloud producing thermonuclear hydrogen-bomb explosions going off inside it and because there was so much hydrogen bomb-making material in the sun. The explosions were just like the hydrogen-bomb explosions that could scorch the earth and that could even incinerate the little bomb shelter if they went off close enough.

The logic of the explanation went well beyond explaining the strategic equilibrium of a nuclear Mexican standoff on a global scale. The good news that the sun would not burn out anytime soon came with the bad news that the sun would certainly burn out in a few billion years. But first it would engulf the molten earth in its red-giant phase.

The same explanation said further that in cosmic due course all the stars would burn out or blow up. There is no free lunch in the heat and light that results when simpler atoms fuse into slightly more complex atoms and when mass transforms into energy. There would not even be stars for long. The universe will go dark and get ever closer to absolute-zero cold. The result will be a faint white noise of sparse energy and matter. Even the black holes will over eons burn out or leak out into the near nothingness of an almost perfect faint white noise. That steady-state white noise will have effectively zero information content. It will be the last few steps in a staggeringly long sequence of irreversible nonlinear steps or processes that make up the evolution of the universe. So there will be no way to figure out the lives and worlds that preceded it even if something arose that could figure.

The explanation of why the sun still shines is deep as it gets. It explains doomsday.