According to our current model of the universe, we’re all trapped inside a prison we can never escape. We just haven’t noticed yet—because the prison is about 91 billion light-years in diameter. We haven’t developed the technology to even get a good look at it, much less travel within it, much less reach the edge. But one day in the far-flung future, it will be very, very important that we escape it. Because this universe, most physicists predict, will one day become uninhabitable.
Last year, I explored the question of whether humanity can prevent this from happening, a possibility that seems arrogant but one that we shouldn’t rule out. After all, two centuries ago it would have seemed arrogant to believe that we could fly, or harness energy, or speak to each other over long distances, or distribute media instantly in a global electronic network—or even predict an end to the universe that was not grounded in religious ideology. Much of what we’re doing now as a matter of course was in the realm of utopian fiction not that very long ago. There’s no reason to be certain that things we now regard as categorically impossible may seem equally possible, even mundane, to our descendants.
But escaping the universe poses a special problem because we can’t even begin to imagine what that would look like. Well, most of us can’t. Stephen Hawking may have found a way out. And like so many of his unique contributions to astrophysics, it involves black holes—specifically, the possibility that a black hole of sufficient size could be a one-way ticket out of our universe and into another one.
How exactly we might go about doing that is another matter entirely. But this is a problem we’ve only had for about 20 years; as long as we can avoid destroying ourselves, odds are good we’ll have billions of years to solve it.