The Infinite Monkey Cage - The Infinite Monkey's Guide To… The Future

Episode Date: May 15, 2024

We know the universe is rapidly expanding but what happens if other galaxies disappear from view? That’s what Eric Idle wants to know as he ponders the future and what it holds in store. Solar scien...tist Lucie Green says this is not worth dwelling on because we’ll all be wiped out by an asteroid at some point anyway, which leads to a discussion about whether anywhere is still safe. Away from physics, Brian Cox and Robin Ince learn that one of the major contributors to global warming is the urinal cooling industry, which raises important questions about human stupidity. Should we let another species have a go? Chris Addison reckons dolphins might do a better job than we have but admits there are some major logistical issues.New episodes will be released on Wednesdays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the full series on BBC Sounds: Marijke Peters Executive Producer: Alexandra FeachemEpisodes featured: Series 22: The end of the universe Series 3: Apocalypse Series 13: Climate Change Series 19: The future of humanity Series 15: The human story: How we got here and how we survived

Discussion (0)
Starting point is 00:00:00 BBC Sounds music radio podcasts. I'm Brian Cox. I'm Robin Ince and welcome to another episode of the Infinite Monkeys Guide 2. Now today it says in the script we're going back into the past which we can't do. Well I suppose we're saying it as in we're revisiting the past not physically using a time machine but by listening to archive material. Okay. Right. Is that acceptable to you? I accept that. Okay today we're going back into the past to see what we used to say about the future. Because of course Brian has proved himself
Starting point is 00:00:33 something of a Nostradamus. No. You know how you've refuted the laws of physics. No Nostradamus made literally no correct predictions. None. That's a relief then. Because otherwise I was thinking the laws of physics would be able to get rid of all those episodes. So I've not proved myself to be a Nostradamus. Oh. Because otherwise I'd have just talked nonsense and become famous. So what did he predict? It's always the end of the world. Wednesday. He predicted Wednesday. Did he? He said today is Monday. I see Wednesday coming soon. And then people said that what he actually meant by that was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But I think they might have read a lot between the lines there.
Starting point is 00:01:12 Yeah, and did he have that accent? Yes. Oh, it's January. But I see April. It's April! Only two months later, over two months later, it's April! Nostradamus has done it again! Which I think also shows that he predicted the Thirty Years War. When we were growing up, it was a boom time for imagining the future, because it doesn't feel like that as much now. Again, going back to all those books that we enjoyed, movies, 1997 Manhattan Island would be a maximum security prison. It always was, wasn't it? Everybody was living in a dystopian wasteland.
Starting point is 00:01:47 We were living in that time where we were being told that, well, by 2024, we would definitely be living on the moon. We would probably have... By 1999. Yeah, 1999. Well, yeah. With flares. Yeah, the flares were a very important part. and that is one bit that you have predicted correctly, I think, is your love of brine nylon flares in 2024 very much reflects what the Terran Space Authority books were saying you would be wearing. But throughout our many series we've repeatedly asked what next for the human race and for the universe more generally. I can tell you what, oblivion ultimately.
Starting point is 00:02:21 Yeah, can you stop doing that? It's a spoiler alert situation. People don't want to know how the universe is going to end. They want to be surprised. Back in 2020, when the Covid pandemic led to global lockdowns that made many of us feel like the world had ended, Eric Idle read a book by the physicist Brian Green and discovered that far in the future, in over 100 billion years time, space will have expanded so much that we won't be able to see any of the distant galaxies that we now know exist.
Starting point is 00:02:49 So here are Eric Idle and Brian Greene. What I found the most fascinating is that towards the end of the universe, if we were in it, we couldn't see the rest of the universe because it would have expanded beyond our sight. And that is fascinating. So we're actually in a very fortunate part of the universe to exist in because we can actually see something. You're absolutely right. All right. I mean, they're completely right. So in 1998, there was a shocking realization that not only is space expanding, which we've known since Hubble back in 1929,
Starting point is 00:03:21 but it's expanding ever more quickly. It's accelerating. It's speeding up. And that means, just as Eric is saying, that in 1929, but it's expanding ever more quickly. It's accelerating, it's speeding up, and that means, just as Eric is saying, that in the future, it isn't even that far in the future by the timescales that we're talking about. Roughly 100 billion or a trillion years into the future, the distant galaxies will be rushing away at a speed that's faster than the speed of light.
Starting point is 00:03:42 So distant galaxies riding the swelling space can move away from us at a speed that's greater than the speed of light. So distant galaxies riding the swelling space can move away from us at a speed that's greater than the speed of light. And that means the light that they emit will fight a losing battle as it tries to traverse the ever-widening gap between us. So yeah, exactly as Eric says, we will not be able to see the rest of the universe.
Starting point is 00:03:59 It will be as if those distant galaxies fell off a cliff at the edge of space. And it'll be kind of a lonely, lonely time the galaxies that are nearby will still be able to see them but that's it we will be a little island oasis floating in a sea of apparently eternal darkness and that's like that maybe that takes away the the good news that I said before can follow up on that would we be able to intuit that the walls universe beyond that? It's a very good question and it's a hard one.
Starting point is 00:04:29 Not everybody agrees on this. I think it would be very difficult for future astronomers to intuit that there was in the past distant galaxies that now have disappeared. So I think it's quite likely that our descendants, if they're still around, they will come to the conclusion that the universe is static, eternal, and unchanging because the very diagnostic tool that we use to figure out that it is expanding the motion of the distant galaxies, that data will be gone. That tool will no longer be available to us. So you know you might say, well look we just need to you know
Starting point is 00:05:02 write a letter to our distant descendants. Tell them, hey, when you look out, you're not going to see any galaxies, but don't be fooled. There used to be a universe full of galaxies. They've all just rushed away. But I think those distant future astronomers are likely to not pay much attention to mythology handed down from an earlier age, billions or trillions of years earlier, I think they're going to believe their own observations and come to this erroneous
Starting point is 00:05:29 conclusion, the very conclusion that Einstein thought that the universe is fixed and unchanging, even though we know that that's not correct. The end of the world is nigh. Though the question always remains is just how soon is nigh? In our childhood, there was always this notion that there were various men going around wearing sandwich boards that said the end of the world is nigh. Did you ever see one of those in Oldham? No, no. What do you mean the end of the world is nigh?
Starting point is 00:05:53 It's already happened, haven't you seen what's going on down the supermarket? Is the length of nigh a few years, a few centuries, a few billion years? Nigh seems to be pretty vague. Well, here's physicist Lucy Green telling Andy Hamilton and evolutionary geneticist Adam Rutherford why she thinks we'll be wiped out by an asteroid. And that led to a long discussion actually about the best way to go when it eventually happens. We'll all go together when we go, maybe.
Starting point is 00:06:20 I suppose in the list of things that could cause a mass extinction and remove humans from the Earth, asteroids would be what top I think it would be it's top and I think it's my favorite way to go as well Because you can choose how you want to die with an asteroid impact I mean it is going to happen every day. We're hit by a hundred tons of space debris mostly It's in the form of dust, but we will be hit by something big in the future. There are big objects out there.
Starting point is 00:06:47 And if you're really unlucky, it would land straight on your head and squash you. If you're maybe next in line, if you're near the site, you might be burnt as this huge amount of energy is given up and causes fires. Or if it lands in the ocean, it might create a tsunami and you might drown. Or like you were saying, the food chain could collapse as all this stuff comes up into the atmosphere and circulates around the globe by the wind system and blocks out the sunlight so there are so many different ways you can go. So you get to choose by just traveling to a different place. I'm going to go to New York because that will be a famine event
Starting point is 00:07:20 rather than a tsunami. Do you know what I think if you can't travel when there's a volcano, I'd be very surprised if you could travel when there's an asteroid. That's right. That's right. How much notice would we get of an asteroid? I mean, I think Brian's right. I think there's a gap in the market for asteroid tourism. Because if it's a month, you might as well pick your venue,
Starting point is 00:07:43 mightn't you? Well, that's right. And people are looking. So NASA are looking. But you might be surprised to hear that the Br, you might as well pick your venue, mightn't you? Well, that's right. And people are looking, so NASA are looking, but you might be surprised to hear that the Brits are looking as well. And even at the National Space Centre in Leicester, they have a near-Earth object centre where they're looking for bits of space rock that could hit us. I mean, in the movies, it's portrayed as something that's like a fiery ball that comes very slowly through the atmosphere and then takes out Paris,
Starting point is 00:08:04 I think is normally the place it's taken out at the moment. But in reality, these things are traveling extremely fast. And so this thing would slam through and you kind of go, oh, what? And by that point, it would have caused chaos. So we probably will have no no warning. So, yes, I said that we are looking for them. But the thing is, when we look in the night sky at something that doesn't give off its own light, these things are dark, they're really hard to see. So you try and
Starting point is 00:08:27 track them as they move against the star's background. But if something is coming straight for you, that's really hard to see. Which are the problem ones in general. Yes. So from a help, I mean in Deep Impact, Bruce Willis lands on an asteroid with a couple of mates, troubled by his relationship with his daughter, I think. Can't remember the plot that well.
Starting point is 00:08:53 But they attach rockets to it, don't they? And is that right? Oh, they blow it up, do they? Do they blow it up? That's on the good end. Oh, is it? Yeah. But the very worst thing you can do is blow it up.
Starting point is 00:09:04 Because if you blow it up, then you've got a shotgun effect coming towards your planet. So, from a health and safety point of view... Yeah, yeah. What you should really do is attach... I mean, I'm not a scientist, so... But if you attach rockets to the asteroid, can't you just steer all the asteroids to a safer part of the universe that wouldn't... Surely that's what we should
Starting point is 00:09:25 be investing public money in. We have the same burst of magnetism from the sun, then the sat nav on the rockets goes away and the whole thing is just... Now I love Lee Scream because as a solar scientist she has such joy, because when she started being a scientist she was eventually put off because she was kind of told that you're not meant to be excited, so she would see these incredible images of the workings of the Sun, you know, those kind of things that are obviously not accessible to us. They are accessible to solar scientists, then eventually accessible, you know, to the media and the internet.
Starting point is 00:09:55 And when she would get excited, these old scientists would go, well, don't get so excited. And I think that's perhaps a change. Do you think in science now, I think people are accepting, you don't get so excitable that you screw up your equations, but you are allowed to experience joy and delight at our ability to see the marvelous and the strange and the remarkable. Yeah, you have to remember why you became a scientist in the first place. It's excitement. Excitement and awe at the beauty of nature. If you forget that,
Starting point is 00:10:28 then you won't be as good a scientist. The wonders of solar science is all well and good and all the different ideas involving the possibility of a burst of magnetism. These are all well and good. It's neither well nor good when we think of the burst of magnetism that might ultimately destroy our civilisation. It's a pie and parcel of a star. But I'm trying to be upbeat, like the one show we do.
Starting point is 00:10:46 I'm just saying you're underselling the sun. Yeah. It's not all well and good. It's the sun. Talking about so many different ideas about how we might be able to preserve life for longer, it was unusual I suppose when we started talking about how a particular way of going for a we may change our possibilities. I have to admit I wasn't expecting that link, but there we are. So that again is a lot of what science is about. It has to be said, we haven't done a brilliant job of protecting this planet and obviously
Starting point is 00:11:15 we can't talk about the future without at some point mentioning climate change. Back in 2016, or 2016, whichever you prefer, the director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, Tony Ryan, told us about some of the more eccentric things we've done that seem to have sped up the process of climate change and how we might be able to slow that down. Here he is with Dara O'Brien talking about cool urinals. The things we do that are profligate with energy are amazing. I remember sitting down once and calculating how many power stations were running just to
Starting point is 00:11:50 make ice cubes to put in the men's urinals in American bars. Right? I mean, it's just crazy things. Oh, you know about that, Dara. I do. I do. So, for many years, many have been selling ice to urinals. And people said, you're mad, you won't make a dime.
Starting point is 00:12:07 And I said, I certainly will, my friend. You've got to find this calculation out, though. If you've done that calculation, have you actually done the calculation? How did you, yeah, well, let's follow that a bit. How did you estimate the number of urinals in the United States? OK, so how many people are there per bar?
Starting point is 00:12:24 So 1,000 people per bar? Right, so thousand people per bar. Right, oh so you're going to. Then you take the population of the country, yeah, that gives you the number of bars, then you have the number of kilograms of ice, you know the enthalpy of fusion of water, you know how far you have to cool it, you can work out how much energy is needed.
Starting point is 00:12:43 You need to know the average temperature of urine as well, I suppose. Well, it's pretty much 37 degrees. Yeah, idiot. Oh look at Brian, he's never even checked the temperature of his urine. It's got to be biology that, won't it? I want to know where they put the ice. Oh no, it's in the urinal to stop the smell. I did not know where they put the ice. Oh no, it's in the urinal to stop the smell. I did not know that.
Starting point is 00:13:08 It's not that common, it's not like we glide around having our urine cooled for a sad repeat. I in the car have a urine cooling unit. So when I drive it onto the plane, I can have my urine cooled for the flight. I apologize for choosing that example, but it's just one of many examples. How many power stations was it, ultimately? I'd have to sit down and do the calculation. Look, you can't go through the whole, the ice, the urinals, these thousand people pubs. Just give me a minute or two.
Starting point is 00:13:40 None of us have even actually heard of this ice, I mean we don't really much, this ice here it seems to be some kind of Narnia urinal. I'm not sure you are Dara, you're elevated to scientist, he's becoming comedy guest now ok. As a species we're pretty proud of ourselves, a creature that shapes the world around us rather than evolve to fit into the shape of the world. But maybe this creature that builds canals, writes symphonies, flies to the moon and built altars and towers and pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and other amusement parks. I love the idea that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon just started off as an amusement park. They went, you won't believe it, we've been upgraded, we've been made one of the seven
Starting point is 00:14:26 wonders of the world. That should do well shouldn't it? And they've rebuilt it at Alton Towers. Maybe this creature is a little too confident in its ability to reshape the world without any ramifications. It's time to hand the reins over to another species, maybe the bonobos. No, they're busy the bonobos. They're not dolphins. No. All that time, that evolutionary time,
Starting point is 00:14:47 they went out of the ocean onto the land and they get their big brains and everything and they could have built a civilization and instead they just went back into the sea. Is that literally what you think they did? They were out on the land and they went, oh, do you know what? Yeah.
Starting point is 00:14:58 I cannot be bothered to chuck a ball into that wave and I'm off. It's true, I think it's a dereliction of duty, to be honest. Because you can't build a civilization if you're aquatic. You can't do electricity. But when the dolphins do come up with aquatic electricity then we're talking. No one will be more surprised than me. Anyway we asked Chris Addison and Baroness Cathy Ashton what species should maybe have another go at it. There are a number of good temping agencies we could call to see if people could come in and take over from us. I don't know if that would work.
Starting point is 00:15:29 But other species? Are there other species? Yeah, could maybe. Could we get some dolphins in for a while? They're sort of famously quite clever and rather benign apart from the one or two little awkward things that they get up to. But other than that, you know, they're sort of famously bright and perhaps might have some possible solutions for us of
Starting point is 00:15:45 course we would have to flood the entire place so they can get around maybe they could take their capital as Venice and then we could we could move from there but yeah I don't know that it's necessarily time for us to throw the towel in yet I just think that maybe we've it's like it's like when you're driving a car sometimes you realize you're just going in the wrong direction and there are two options you can either keep going out of pure cussedness and the desire not to be Like not to feel that you are wrong or you can go. Do you know what we took a wrong turning back there? Maybe we need to maybe we need to go back
Starting point is 00:16:14 I think we're probably at that stage and just as soon as we can get the glove box open and read the map We'll be fine. I'm a bit worried that he's still got the glove compartment on the map. It's called GPS now, isn't it? You should see some of the cassettes he's got in there as well. I've passed a junction. You know, at the junction on Sliprose, sometimes you just see an unspooled cassette in the old days. You would just see somebody obviously going, oh, for God's sake, throwing it out of the car. I saw one about two weeks ago.
Starting point is 00:16:41 Who was that? What car could they possibly have been driving? At that point you might as well just throw the car on the side. Now, someone who would definitely have an opinion on electrified dolphins, because he has one of the most vibrant human imaginations I know, is Ross Noble, whose mind reigns supreme, even if it does frequently surprise and confuse some of our scientific guesses. It reigns chicken supreme.
Starting point is 00:17:06 Yeah, yeah, there are all these moments where you just see the scientists going, I didn't know we were going to go into a world quite so strange. So what does the future hold for Ross Noble? Evolutionary anthropologist Chris Stringer and paleontologist Danielle Shreve told him what to do if he wants to be remembered in the future. But probably not for eternity because we know eternity is... You can't be remembered for eternity because, well certainly in a universe that's expanding in the way that ours is, you reach a time when information can't be processed.
Starting point is 00:17:37 It's essentially the heat death. Ross is probably someone who would like to be found eventually in thousands of years' time. What is the best way he can increase the chance of being fossilized? Being scientifically important. I'd like to say that it would be a painless disposal in the permafrost.
Starting point is 00:17:55 But actually, if you want to get good DNA out of Ross in several thousand years to come. Oh, cheeky. He. That's where it's all bones stripped of flesh first. Oh. Yeah. So, yes, it's true that we're finding sites now where, for example, Neanderthals have
Starting point is 00:18:21 essentially butchered and cannibalized their own own and the DNA out of that is superior. Yeah that's true, yes it seems that cannibalism seems to help. That's a nightmare because my wife's a vegetarian so that's... Where's the berries and that? The Jurassic Park, they just need a bit of DNA and they can boof off you go. In the next episode we look at tiny things. Thank you for listening. Bye.
Starting point is 00:18:48 Bye. Now all the episodes we took clips from are available on BBC Sounds and you can find all the details of those in the program description for this show. Do I sound nice again? Turn that nice again. To know what it means to be Roman, you need to look beyond the sweating gladiators. There are fresh stories to be told from scattered clues and new discoveries. I'm Mary Beard and I'll be uncovering these stories for Being Roman, a new series for BBC Radio 4. There's a young bride avenging the murder of her parents and an emperor flirting outrageously with his nervous teacher.
Starting point is 00:19:35 Listen to Being Roman wherever you get your podcasts.

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