The Realization That the Universe May End

In a bravura passage, Darwin also considers Herschel’s disturbing suggestion that the entire cosmos may eventually wither back into ‘one dark centre’. This implies that the universe not only had a beginning, but will have a physically destructive end, a ‘Big Crunch’. There are hints here too of Milton’s vision of the falling rebel angels dropping out of the firmament in Book I of Herschel’s favourite, Paradise Lost. This itself had possible political overtones for a reader in the 1790s, especially after the execution of Louis XVI in 1792.

So, late descried by Herschel’s piercing sight,
Hang the bright squadrons of the twinkling night...
Flowers of the sky! Ye to age must yield,
Frail as your silver sisters of the field!
Star after star from Heaven’s high arch shall rush,
Sun sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,
And death and night and chaos mingle all!

Darwin’s note to this section calmly remarks: ‘From the vacant spaces in some parts of the heavens, and the correspondent clusters of stars in their vicinity, Mr Herschel concludes that the nebulae or constellations of fixed stars are approaching each other, and must finally coalesce in one mass. Philosophical Transactions Vol. LXXV.’ He adds however the consoling thought that a new universe may arise, phoenix-like, from the collapsed one (which might please contemporary proponents of multiverses). ‘The story of the phoenix rising from its own ashes with a twinkling star upon its head, seems to have been an ancient hyroglyphic emblem of the destruction and resuscitation of all things.’

See Also: Erasmus Darwin, Botanic Garden, Part I, Canto IV (Air), lines 371-88

Notes:

The historical realization that the Universe might die in a "crunch" was followed by the idea that it might rise again like a phoenix.

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 The Age of Wonder
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Holmes , Richard (2010-03-02), The Age of Wonder, Vintage, Retrieved on 2012-01-02
  • Source Material [books.google.com]
  • Folksonomies: history enlightenment science