Sunshine In The Cinema

Sunshine is on at the Rio Cinema Dalston in London this weekend as part of the Physics On Film festival run by the Institute of Physics (and organised by my friend Sam Rae:).

Unfortunately, I’m not going to be in London this weekend otherwise I’d be there. I’d love to see ‘Sunshine’ in the cinema again. The last time I saw it on a big screen was at an IMAX After Dark screening.

I finished working on Sunshine when the DVD came out in the UK last September. I then had a bit of a physical collapse and needed to restructure everything again in order to not end up a complete wreck. So last autumn, I spent 6 weeks in bed. When I tell people this, they think I must have been depressed. Not at all. I was happy, but genuinely physically exhausted. When you do 7 days a week, 16 hour days for two years, you end up needing 6 weeks in bed. My colleague Stephanie at Fox in LA told me that would happen, so it’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. She said they’d suck my brain dry and leave me with very little left. And that they did.

Since then, I’ve been forcing myself to finish work at a normal time, taking myself offline, watching films or reading books, having weekends. I’m pretty much back to full strength now.

I’ve just found something that I wrote during the ‘Sunshine’ daze. I have no idea if it was for the blog or a messageboard post or what. Reading it back might give you some idea of the huge weight of the concepts I was living with during that time. No wonder I collapsed. :)

You are going to die.

Let’s just get that over and done with right now. You are going to die, your parents are going to die, your children are going to die, in fact, in just over 100 years, every single person alive today will be dead.

The lucky ones will, however, live on in the things they’ve created. Perhaps they wrote books, made films, wrote songs, started businesses, had children, donated their time, money, possessions to the needy. Through those creations, an element of that person will live on past their physical death. They can only live on in this way, however, if there are other people alive to make use of their creations.

One day, everyone will be gone. All human life will cease to exist. There will be no one left to read the books, listen to the music, watch the films created which attempt to explain, or even simply acknowledge, our existence.

Then what?

That two-word question is at the heart of ‘Sunshine’. In 2004, Alex Garland, read an article in Scientific American magazine about the ultimate fate of mankind which provided the initial inspiration for the film. The article talked about the death of the Sun as well as the death of the Universe.

According the current scientific knowledge the Sun is approximately halfway through its lifecycle. It is 5 billion years old and has another 5 billion years left to live. It will start its death throes by swelling up into a Red Giant the size of the Earth’s orbit. As the Sun will have lost a considerable amount of mass, the orbits of both Mars and the Earth may move far enough away in order to avoid complete annihilation, though the Earth’s water will be boiled away and its atmosphere lost. Life on Earth will cease to exist long before the Sun is completely dead.

After the Red Giant phase, the Sun will throw off its outer layers and become a White Dwarf star. It will then cool and eventually fade over billions of years.

Of course, if mankind hasn’t destroyed itself before then we should be sufficiently advanced to have started expanding out into not only our Solar System, but to the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy. If we’re lucky, we will have settled around much younger and healthier stars well before our Sun reaches old age.

Of course, those young, healthy stars will eventually age and die. We would then move to new stars. And when they start to die, we could move to new stars. This can’t, however, go on forever. Eventually the Universe itself will meet its end.

Up until a few years ago, scientists weren’t sure how exactly the Universe would play itself out. If there is enough mass, gravity will cause the Universe to collapse into a Big Crunch – the opposite of the Big Bang – when the gravitational attraction of matter in the Universe would slow, and ultimately reverse, its expansion.

A collapsing Universe permits a hypothetical scenario called The Omega Point. According to this theory, as the Universe ends in the Big Crunch the computational rate of the Universe will increase and accelerate exponentially faster than Time will run out. The Universe itself will be a ‘computer’ capable of running simulations which, internally, will seem to last ‘forever’ – despite the fact that the Universe itself has a finite end. Much like the Multivac computer in Isaac Asimov’s brilliant short story ‘The Last Question’, the Universe within the Omegy Point Theory could choose to ‘start again’. Let there be light.

If there isn’t enough mass in the Universe, however, it will simply continue to expand until space was so rarefied, all energy so dispersed throughout space, that no information could be exchanged or stored. Despite the fact the temperature of the whole Universe would be very close to absolute zero, this scenario is called Heat Death. At some point in the far, far future, both new stars and new galaxies will cease to be created. The ones that exist will live out the end of their lives, cooling and dimming for billions of years. In the end, the only light in the Universe will come from red and brown dwarf stars perhaps surrounded by the last remnants of intelligent civilisation hovering with a Dyson sphere – a mega-construction built around a star in order to capture its total energy output. Eventually, those stars, too, would die out. And then… nothing.

The Omega Point is a quasi-scientific, some would say pseudo-scientific or even theologic, theory dressed up with the terminology of physics. Basically, ‘The Resurrection’ of the Quantum rather than the Christ. As of this writing, all evidence suggests the Universe won’t end in a Big Crunch. We are destined to fizzle out.

Nothing will survive.

I was Pinbacker.

7 Responses to “Sunshine In The Cinema”
  1. Amanda says:

    When I was reading through that the first thing I thought of was that short story. I love that after two years Sunshine is still heavy on my mind. I guess I probably have you to thank for that…!

  2. giagia says:

    I hope I didn’t mess with your head *too* much!

    I just recommended ‘The Last Question’ to someone the other day. That is a brilliant story… If anyone hasn’t read it yet, you must.

  3. Hugh says:

    Love the Asimov story – I’ve not come across that one before… Interesting, and thought provoking.

    Hopefully there’ll be a load new people introduced to Sunshine this weekend…. Wish I could make it…

  4. ironic1 says:

    Thank you for your very eloquent essay on mortality. I may use some of that in a sermon sometime.

    I saw Sunshine for the first time this winter and was struck by this very theme of the finiteness of things, even things as immense as the sun.

  5. mitchell porter says:

    Freeman Dyson had a go at constructing a scenario in which life lasts forever in an expanding universe. Things get bigger and slower without limit – it’s the complement of Tipler’s Omega Point cosmology. Dark energy screws things up, but current cosmological models have enough bells and whistles that I imagine there’s a way around the problem in some of them.

    Another thing you can think about, once you have an idea of the universe’s future in its totality, is just how much of a role intelligent life ends up playing. Does the inanimate self-organization of stars and galaxies dominate from start to finish, with intelligent beings at most wanderers amid the vastness; or do we truly get galaxy-spanning “civilizations” at some point? It’s a lot to ask – the times, distances, numbers of stars involved just in one galaxy completely dwarf the totality of everything the human race has ever done. It might take a fundamentally bigger and longer-lived being, more like a sentient starship than a hopped-up African plains ape – or rather, a whole society of such beings – for such a thing to happen.

    The speculations and counter-speculations seem endless, to the point that, if you’ve absorbed the message of personal mortality, it might seem that the only certainty is that the darkness will close in on you, years or decades hence, without you personally ever getting to know the cosmic truth. That is the realistic extrapolation of one’s personal subjectivity. However, we do have this Moore’s-Law, rise-of-the-robots thing still going on, even at the scary tail-end of the Oil Age. If we can avoid the stupid fate of an energy-starved terminal neo-medievalism, and the even bleaker outcome of high-tech self-extermination, it seems like some truly big transformation of human sensibility and capability remains ahead. And it’s hard to say what the universe will look like to us after that.

  6. kal says:

    greeting from across the pond.
    I’ve recently watched sunshine…and i’m hooked. I can’t belive this movie wasn’t more widely marketed here and regret the fact that I couldn’t see it in a theater. In any case, thanks for sunshinedna and the wonderful resource it has been.

  7. giagia says:

    Kal, I’m so glad you love the film! I just watched part of it on Blue-Ray last weekend. Oh My God! It’s sooooooooo much better than on DVD. The compression on DVD makes the effects look rubbish. On Blue Ray the blacks are properly black and every little tiny light flare can be seen. It’s like watching it in the cinema again!