The Destruction of the Universe and the Comic/SF Genre

I have a problem with comic universes and science fiction storylines that offer the destruction of their universes by a single threat, no matter how powerful that threat may be. It may make for compelling storytelling in theory, but when you look at the science behind it, its just lazy storytelling. Destroying the universe is really a lot harder to do that you might think. As humans, we are simply not aware of the scale of power that is potentially available out there, so we jump from nuclear bombs, to destroying the universe without really looking at anything in between.

The cliff notes might look like this: muscle power (tentacle power, whatever), muscle with rock, thrown rock, bigger rock, add velocity, create rock or stick propelling device, add more muscle, store energy then propel matter, chemically propelled matter, explosively release chemical energy, explosively release nuclear energy, fuse nuclear matter then release energy, propel asteroids at planets, collect stray gaseous matter into stars, compress super amounts of matter until star heats, fuses and explodes in shortened lifespan then run from supernova, smash neutron stars together for galaxy-spanning gamma ray pulse, annihilate matter with anti-matter, add stellar masses until a super gravity field forms, create singularity (black hole), create super-massive black hole then trap other stars until galaxy forms, consume other galaxies, compress billions of galaxies into quasar, compress all matter in known universe into tiny super-singularity, release for Big Bang or alternatively, allow for membranes between universal branes to bang together, releasing an entire universe worth of energy disrupting previous universe, erasing all existing matter and start again overlapping previous universe. Surely somewhere in between the rock and the big bang we can find a story worth telling.

Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds

Creative License or “I reserve the right to destroy the Universe…”

To give you a summary of the article is to say this, plain and simple: The Universe is too damn BIG for Thanos, Galactus, The Kree, Skrull, The Infinity Gems, Master Order/Lord Chaos, Darkseid, the Anti-life Equation, The Anti-Monitor, Access or anything else, for that matter, to destroy in a single effort. Any creature or creatures powerful to know how to destroy the ENTIRE Universe would probably be too sane to do it or allow such knowledge to fall into the hands of creatures who would. And the logical problem to be derived from that though process is, what do you have them protect when saving the universe becomes routine? Other universes, perhaps even the Omniverse (the sum of all universes, no matter where or when they are, including all related multiple universes, timelines, or realities).

(For the record, I have the same problems with the Green Lantern Corp only needing 3600 members to patrol the entire Universe. Given that our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars, it means that each member of the Corp in our Galaxy alone had 2,777,778 stars to patrol!)

I know what you are saying, writers reserve the creative right to destroy the universe or to have heroes “patrol” the universe, if it will carry a plot; but I say fey. Writers have a responsibility to work to make their stories good, not to rely on lazy writing plots like “the destruction of all life in the universe” to make it seem important enough for the heroes to save it. I see this so often it almost seems that the universe is imperiled at least twice a year.

I want to give you a scale to work with but I need to give you a science lesson, so hang tight. (for the record, the numbers I am going to give you will quickly be beyond the realm of human comprehension, and that is exactly my point.)

Light is the fastest known thing in the Real Universe that we know of. It is capable of moving in normal space at 186,282 miles in one second. This means that to cross the distance between the Earth and its nearest neighbor, the Moon, (240,000 miles away) takes about a second and a half. While it may appear instantaneous at extremely short distances, say – in your room, space is so big that time actually passes between when you hit the switch and when it arrives somewhere.

To cross the distance from the Earth to the Sun at 93,000,000 miles or so, takes approximately 8.5 minutes. Can you imagine the fastest thing in the universe taking a whopping 9 minutes to cross between the Sun and the Earth. Seems like a slug when you look at it like that. No, what it really means is that space is really big. But lets look further. It takes nearly an hour for a beam of light to reach the planet Pluto from the sun (Pluto is 5,913,520,000 km from the Sun). This is the fastest thing in the Universe and yet takes an hour to reach a planet in the same solar system. But in one year, a beam of light can travel 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers for you English blokes).

What does this have to do with the destruction of the Universe, you might ask? Plenty so read on.

Space is Big…

For a beam of light to travel to the next nearest star to Earth, Alpha Centauri, light takes 4.2 years. Alpha Centauri is approximately 25.5 trillion miles from the Earth. A radio message from here to there would take 8 years for a single exchange of “hello, is this thing on?”

The Universe is so large that it must be measured in lightyears because miles and kilometers are simply too small to do it justice. So our basic unit of measure is the lightyear or 6 trillion miles. Unfortunately the Universe is so large that we must still augment the Lightyear a bit further. The next unit of measure is called the parsec. It is considered to be approximately 3.3 lightyears long. This is the most common measure of interstellar or intergalactic distances.

This is a huge distance and we believe that even if the universe is flat and finite, that this would mean that the Universe is incredibly large. Its actual size is a difficult thing to explain but lets assume that we are not in the middle of the Universe but that everything in the Universe is receeding from us, we theoretically measure the Universe to be 75 billion lightyears from “center to edge”.

Stellar Cosmology

The most basic building block of the Universe is the star. 90% of all stars in the universe are called red dwarfs (sorry, Superman). They are approximately the same size as the Earth give or take 10 to 200%. The remainder of stars are a variety of sizes and energy output from small burned out white dwarfs (hunks of transmuted carbon burning with incandesent heat, literally hunks of space-charcoal) to blue-white supergiants who burn themselves out in a stellar flash of 75 million years. There are stars estimated to be equal to the size of our inner solar system! (VY Canis Majoris). Stars are the basic expressions of the Universe’s ability to convert matter to energy through the fusion of hydrogen to helium. This produces a byproduct of energy and recombinated matter. This fusion will occur until the star cannot transmute matter any further (yes, that means it will convert and fuse atoms until a star turns into IRON, a non-reactive, stable metal). The main sequence of stars chart (show below) notes the different physical characteristics of stars, their lifespans and galactic percentages.

The Earth’s Sun (a G type star) produces totally per second 4×10 to the 26th power Watts of energy per second into space. Every second, it produces an amount of energy equivalent to the detonation of about 100 billion 1-megaton nuclear weapons. It has an internal core temperature of approximately 15 million degrees, cooling to a meager 6000 degrees at the surface. At these temperatures, most matter cannot even exist under normal conditions. Its internal pressures are greater than 20 times the density of iron or 150,000 kg/m3.

Occasionally a star with 9 times the mass of our sun, (a relatively uninteresting and underpowered specimen as star’s go) explodes creating a supernova. This explosion is a magnificent representation of the power of stars and is responsible for the final transmutation of all the heavy metals in the universe. All the gold, silver and other super-heavy elements are formed in the supernovas of stars. The next time you think about any heavy metal, including the ones that make up your body, magnesium, iron, calcium, know that a star was destroyed to produce it.

Massive stars after they explode, their remaining matter collapses upon itself to form a singularity or black hole. This means that all of the remaining matter of that star is now shrunken to a single point in space, with an intense gravitational field surrounding it. This gravity is so great that, not even light can escape it. As an expression of natural phenomenon, it is one of the ultimate forms of power in our universe and a lynchpin holding entire galaxies together with the force of its gravity. It emits no form of radiation so it cannot be detected directly at all, only by its indirect effect on its environment.

Enough with the basics, now on to the good stuff!

The Good Stuff: How Aliens Do It…

A paper on the idea of intergalactic intelligence suggests that a civilization goes through several stages before it attempts to leave it’s planet and expand into space.

Stage I is when a species utilizes it fuels on its planet to power its ascent into space. The most likely of these fuels are going to probably be radioactive, solar or geothermal in nature, but other alternatives might also be available. On planets that have superheavy gravity, other means may be necessary to achieve spaceflight. (Humanity in most superhero comics is a species of this nature.)

The Marvel’s Universe’s Kree Civilization

Stage II – Once a species achieves spaceflight, they will attempt to harness more of their next greatest power source, their star. In the beginning they will probably harness solar radiation by capturing it and directing it toward the planet or converting it into other forms of radiation. As their technology improves they will move into stage III.

(Most of the Marvel Universes races are at a stage between level 2 and Level 3. The Kree (shown to the right), Skrull, Shiar, all appear to be Level 2 to 3 even with the advent of other technologies such as faster than light communication and travel. Their planetscaping technologies and energy production/harnessing technologies seem primitive in comparison. Most DC races share a similar condition even in the 30th century of the Legion of Superheroes.)

Stage III is when a planet has harnessed all the energy of their star by destroying all the planets in their solar system and creating around their star a means of absorbing all of the energy of their star. This device was theorized by a scientist named Freeman Dyson and has been called a Dyson’s Sphere. This world on the interior of a ball would be thousands of times larger than anything this civilization had ever known and could possibly support their species’ energy needs for the lifetime of their star. (This is an incredible feat to destroy all your planets to create a new superenvironment around your sun to harness all 10 to the 38 power in Watts of energy being emitted by a star like the Sun every second.)

(Galactus would seem to be an example of a Level 3 life form since it has been theorized that his Worldship possessed an engine powered by a star in a manner similar to a Dyson Sphere. Tyrant also possessed similar technology but few other species have been seen to possess such advanced technology. Curiously enough the New Gods, who seem to have technology with the capabilities to create Dyson Spheres have not. It would seem that they have chosen to tap energy from the Source instead of harnessing it from the environment. Darkseid seems to use the geothermal energy of Apokolips but how it is converted to his personal use is as yet unknown.)

Stage IV is when a species is able to create such worlds around other stars to harness their energy as well or to utilize energy conversions that are more potent and/or efficient than stellar conversions. This would include the barely known quantum phenomena or matter/antimatter interactions. Even these feats, if they could be performed would not allow for energy creations too much greater than natural ones because the environment that would allow for their creation would be too difficult to maintain. (The Markovians from Jack L. Chalker’s Well of Souls Saga could qualify as Level 4 intelligences; so could the “Q” or “Trelane” of Star Trek fame.)

I write all of these things to say that if a civilization has the power to perform feats that allow them to move their entire civilization while they terraform their entire solar system, it still does not all them the power to destroy the entire 17,662.5 billion light year area that our Theoretical Universe takes up.

Back to Destroying the Universe…or I’ll have Black Holes and Quasars for $1,000, Alex….

If a species can harness a single black hole’s incredible gravitation power and use it for evil, they still could not destroy the entire universe. I know where there is already a black hole a million times stronger than any single one formed from any single supernova. And it is right here in our galactic backyard.

A representation of the Milky Way galaxy (we are here…)

At the center of most galaxies is theorized to be a supermassive black hole with the mass of at least a million suns. It is the superglue that holds galaxies together. Harnessing the power of such an object would make a species incredible, the 100 billion or so stars plus the power of the supermassive black hole at the center of it would be an incredible species indeed. But still not enough to destroy the entire universe, since the entire universe has an estimated 100 billion galaxies, each galaxy with at least 100 billion stars, each having at a conservative estimate 1000 planets with potentially intelligent life. There are super-large cannibal galaxies with over a trillion stars!

The farthest object that we have ever clearly detected in our Universe is a QSO-quasi-stellar object at 4,700 million parsecs away from us! This is a distance of almost 5 billion parsecs or 15 billion light years! This QSO or quasar is immeasurable powerful. It generates the energy output of a million galaxies, each with the energy of a 100 billion suns in a area that is less than 2000 parsecs in size! The brightest quasars consume the equivalent of 1000 solar masses a year.

If a species was able to generate the power of a single QSO, they still could not destroy the Universe, considering that we already know where a 1,000 of these things are and the Universe is still here. QSOs are so powerful, you can use them as navigational beacons between galaxies because they define the edge of the known universe and do not move in relationship to anything else. Creatures of the DCU’s fifth dimension who seem to possess the ability to modify the reality of the third dimension, still seem to have inherent limitations to what they are able to do, no matter how seemingly fantastic they can be. The entire species of the “Q” or entities from the Fifth dimension could utilize all of the power from an energy source as a QSO and still have plenty of power left over for millions of years.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of the stakes being high when I am reading a story, but no matter who the antagonist is, when I look at the Earth and understand how truly insignificant it is in the overall scheme of things, (a solar prominence on the sun could swallow the Earth totally destroying all life on Earth with the force of 100,000 nuclear warheads in less than a second) I find it hard to argue that Thanos could destroy “all that there is” in a single second. On the other hand I do offer a couple of handy outs.

You can’t destroy the Universe. Its where I keep all my stuff…

Our local galactic star-group (shown above) is about 1000 Kiloparsecs in size. It includes the Milky Way galaxy and about 20 other local galaxies including the Andromeda Galaxy. I believe that if a device or weapon or tool, of an incredibly advanced technology, far greater than any we have seen in the Marvel or DC Universes (I might make a case for the Wildstorm Universe, seeing how they have technology that has claimed to have captured a “fledgling or baby universe” at the moment of its “birth” and are using it as a powersource for the Authority’s “Carrier”, this is the only technology I have seen that might impress me able to rewrite a section of the local galactic space, a tiny area, in the overall scheme of things) I might offer that a species might have the ability to devastate a portion of Universal space similar in size to that. This would effectively “destroy the Universe” as we know it and still not make a dent in the overall Universal structure.

As a matter of fact, there is a scientific premise that might be exploited for this purpose. At the galactic level, there are several regions of intergalactic space at appear “empty” meaning apparently devoid of any intergalatic materials. These regions are called ‘voids’. Galaxies are not generally found in isolation, nor are they randomly distributed throughout the Universe. Most are surrounded by a swarm of satellite galaxies and are themselves embedded in larger aggregates called groups or clusters. These large concentrations of galaxies form part of even larger scale structures such as the galactic filaments and sheets which contain millions of galaxies. Between these enormous walls of galaxies lie regions which are very sparsely populated – these are known as ‘galactic voids’. From a storytelling point of view could have been local galactic clusters gone ‘bad’ due to the meddling of a powerful superspecies that could harness the energy of something greater than a QSO. The true origins of galactic voids are still being discovered and it is hinted that dark matter may be involved.

As for events such as DCU’s Crisis storylines, I do not for a single instant believe that the entire Universe was rewritten. Instead, I consider that the fabric of their local universe (a 2-5 million light year region) was remade while the rest of the Universe was unaffected by the DC Universe’s reconstructive surgery. This could include all of their parallel timelines, quantum realms, and nearby dimensional realms like the Fifth Dimension or the New Gods dimensions. I don’t care what DC says, the universe should not be as easy to destroy and recreate as blowing my nose and thinking about it.

I think that nature abhors a vacuum and would allow the fabric of space to fold over the regions that were obliterated by poor management and incorporate them back into the Universe at large, managment free, at this point. I understand that in Marvel and the DCU are both trying to keep their characters fresh and their universal continuity somewhat stable but I believe a tiny bit of science might make their stories and ideas more palatable without having to destroy the universe every ten or fifteen years.

Now all of this is “in my humble opinion” and I have used a few planet destroying, solar system destroying and even galaxy destroying (very small, petite galaxies, 10,000 stars at best) storylines for my roleplaying games and writing, but I have only tried one time to tell the tale of the end of the Universe, and it was being used as a backdrop, not as an element the players needed to affect. I understand the high stakes gambit, but it is up to a good writer to find a way to increase the stakes without going just too damn far.

As an added feature, I have included a shockwave flash file called the Scale of the Universe. It takes a second to load, but once it does, it will take you on an interactive trip from the quantum foam of the structure of the universe to the very edges of our perceivable universe. An awesome trip putting everything into its proper place and perspective.

The text of this article is © 1998, 2010,Thaddeus Howze, All Rights Reserved - A Matter of Scale
Originally published for the Metahuman Information Database.
All images are the products of their respective publishers – Walt Disney Company, Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics and Times Warner Entertainment.