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Astronomers Speculate on the "End of Everything"

by Gareth Wynn-Williams

Many astronomers have fond memories of the 1970s science fiction fantasy, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which aliens destroy Earth to make way for a "hyperspace express route." So, when Touchstone Pictures invited the IfA to make a presentation at the Honolulu preview of the new movie version on April 27, we accepted the opportunity with enthusiasm. Astronomers Gareth Wynn-Williams and Robert Jedicke entered into the hitchhiker spirit by donning bathrobes and towels for a 15-minute humorous lecture on cosmic disasters in general and asteroid impacts in particular.

A week later, on May 4, we expanded on this theme with "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the End of Everything," a multimedia presentation by seven IfA astronomers to an audience of over 200 in the Art Building auditorium on the Manoa campus. Billed as "a perfect evening for pessimists and disaster movie fans," it set out to review the real stories concerning the likely fate of "the Earth, the Universe, and Everything." Solar system hazards such as killer asteroids and an erratic Sun were covered by Robert Jedicke and Jeffrey Kuhn, respectively, while Joshua Barnes and John Learned described the rarer but terrifying consequences of cosmic collisions and stellar explosions. The audience was then transported from the unlikely to the inevitable with Michael Liu's description of the Sun's eventual death and Nick Kaiser's gloomy prediction of a lonely future in an eternally expanding Universe.

Finally, IfA director Rolf Kudritzki outlined what we can do to protect ourselves from cosmic hazards: Complete the Pan-STARRS project to detect killer asteroids in time to take remedial action, and build the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope to truly understand what is happening on the Sun.