So many variations, so little time...

by ChessBase
3/28/2003 – Two weeks ago we receive a letter from a depressed grandmaster. Dr John Nunn was deeply disturbed to find out that the end of the universe would come much earlier (after 22 billion years) than previously expected. We shared this poignant message with you, and received many letters of commiseration. We sent them all to the good doctor. Today we give you his reply, and excerpts from some of the letters. More

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John Nunn spent the last two weeks as an honorary guest and commentator at the Melody Amber Chess Tournament in Monaco. From there he sent us this email:

First of all, I think would like to thank the large number who responded to my slightly tongue-in-cheek letter about the forthcoming end of the universe, which a new theory suggests might occur in only 22 billion years. Some responses were thoughtful, some humorous, and some helpful in relieving my depression about the apparent futility of existence. I would like to summarise the main points raised by the correspondents.

Several messages dealt with the question as to whether 22 billion years would be enough to solve the mysteries of chess. I won't reproduce the calculations here, but I would agree that if chess is completely solved after, say, ten billion years, then the remaining 12 billion will certainly be less fun.

Many correspondents pointed out that in only a few billion years the sun will increase in size and the temperature of the Earth will rise to the point that life in its current form will be impossible. However, in this time we may have managed to escape to other stars, so I regard this as less worrying than the ultimate deadline. Moreover, the end of the universe will affect all life in the universe, not just the human race, and so it has the widest possible significance.

Other correspondents felt that the time-scales involved are so long that there is no point in worrying - there is plenty of time to do whatever you want, so the impending final curtain doesn't have any practical significance. However, whether a few billion years is a long time or not depends on your perspective. Consider the following. It is believed that it took four billion years for primitive bacteria to evolve into human beings. If some catastrophe, either natural or man-made, wiped the Earth clean of all higher forms of life, there might not be enough time for a second chance before the Earth becomes uninhabitable (see last paragraph). Dwelling on this point should cause us to reconsider how we behave towards each other and our planet, but I don't expect that it will.

Here is a selection of the most interesting responses:

  • Still time for a thousand trillion blitz games...missing a bit of sleep of course. (Dr. Iman I Khandaker)

  • Then we'll just have to party like it's 21,999,999,999! (Rafael Fernandez)

  • I just wanted to let Mr Nunn know that although we only have 22 billion years to go, that is just enough for man to develop time machines. The plan is to constantly travel back in time and we'll never see the end of the universe. (Serge Adelson)

  • In light of your observations, perhaps the recent efforts of FIDE to speed up time controls isn't such a bad idea after all! (Matt Phelps)

  • What, are you out of ice cream? (Alan Hartley)

The last comment seems the most relevant, so I'm off now for a depression-relieving portion of Choc Choc Chip.

John Nunn

After we received John's original letter we snooped around the Internet and came up with the following general summary of the problem:

Scientists know pretty well how it all started, how the entire visible universe grew from a speck far smaller than a proton to a nugget the size of a grapefruit when the whole thing was .000000000000000000000000000000000001 sec. old, and then expanded into what it is today. But in more than a third of a century, the best minds in astronomy have failed to solve the mystery of what happens at the other end of time. Will the galaxies continue to fly apart forever, their glow fading until the cosmos is cold and dark? Or will the expansion slow to a halt, reverse direction and send 10 octillion (10 trillion billion) stars crashing back together in a final, apocalyptic Big Crunch, the mirror image of the universe's explosive birth?

According to the "flat universe" theory described by Lemonick the 100 billion or so galaxies we can now see though our telescopes will zip out of range, one by one. Tens of billions of years from now, the Milky Way will be the only galaxy we're directly aware of. The sun will have shrunk to a white dwarf, giving little light and even less heat to whatever is left of Earth, and entered a long, lingering death that could last 100 trillion years. Finally, though, all that will be left in the cosmos will be black holes, the burnt-out cinders of stars and the dead husks of planets. The universe will be cold and black.

But that's not the end, according to University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams, who predicts that all this dead matter will eventually collapse into black holes. By the time the universe is 1 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years old, the black holes themselves will disintegrate into stray particles, which will bind loosely to form individual "atoms" larger than the size of today's universe. Eventually, even these will decay, leaving a featureless, infinitely large void. And that will be that—unless, of course, whatever inconceivable event that launched the original Big Bang should recur.

From: How the Universe Will End, by Michael D. Lemonick

And now to the letters

This is only a small selection of all the letters we received. They were selected by a semi-automatic process and not strictly on the basis of their content. Please do not feel insulted if your own message is not included.

Harvey Mintz, Vermont, USA
I was wondering if Dr. Hawking has published anything about the state of the universe once substantially all matter and energy are trapped within the inescapable boundaries of event horizons ? Since nothing can ever escape from a black hole (and also because the singularity is always in a trapped body's future and never its present or past) does this not bestow a kind of immortality on all such matter and energy? Then there are, or may be, worm holes, rendering distance irrelevant. To quote Bob Dylan "They say every distance is not real". So, Cheer up, GM Nunn!

Mike Rotella
First, think about how long 22 billion years actually is and how far we have come as a civilization in a much shorter amount of time! We may just find out that there is another universe out there, although that requires some abstract thinking, that we can go to! Besides, look on the bright side (sort of) you and I will have passed and won't have to deal with it! Another bright side is that you rock at chess and write freakin' amazing books! Go John, and cheer up will you!

Matt Phelps, Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
In light of your observations, perhaps the recent efforts of FIDE to speed up time controls isn't such a bad idea after all! By the way, my sources here at work (see my signature below) inform me that the Universe is a sprightly 13.7 billion years old, so we have several bill' before we hit the halfway mark. I suggest a pint or seven of bitter to ease your depression.

Eduardo C. Letort, Quito, Ecuador
Yep, only more years. But consider this: would you care to listen to Mr. Bush for any longer? And of course this abrupt ending will put a definitely halt to any new World Chess Title reunification agreement. Smile... there is ample time for a last game of chess with more than generous time controls.

Jeffrey Ledford, Arlington, VA
I also found this disturbing. Aside from concerns about the End Of It All, this is far less time than would be required for a computer to completely solve chess. Those who search for the truth in every position will never be assured of finding it. The good news is that this means the good Doctor will be able to compose a problem no computer can solve. And for myself, it is just barely possible that in 22 billion years I will defeat Fritz in a 5 minute game.

Fred Anderson
There is nothing that need to be accomplished, because you are not only everything, you are MORE than everything. You are not IN the universe. The universe is in YOU. What you REALLY ARE is beyond all time, all change. Now, don't you feel better?

Patrick Williams, Gaithersburg, Maryland
I feel your pain. And yet there is more bad news: I was told the planet Earth has only 7 million years left before we are consumed by our vengeful sun, as it expands towards becoming a Big Red star. 7 million years... hardly enough time to develop sustainable living in the deeper regions of space. And those great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren of ours who attempt to carry on will still have that 21-ish billion year deadline to contend with. It's too close for comfort; it's as if Dick Clark were already looking over Times Square, counting down... I have no soothing thoughts for this, only my deepest empathy for you, and all of us.

Tim Mestani
Boil en egg and while eating that check the positional queen sacrifice you made 22 years ago in Benoni Defance in Kingston. By the time you analise all the variants the time will be up, but you will enjoy it.

Nathan Gantt
are u a complete idiot its 22 billion years do u not realize how long that is.... and at the rate the human race is destryoing earth we wont even live to see the end anyway we will all be dead anyway. Whats wrong with u!!!!

Alec Pheasant
Don't worry too much about it John. We're about to wipe each other out pretty soon - Bush and Blair are seeing to that .

Johannes Friestad
It might not comfort John, but I have a line of thought that does comfort me: "We're almost halfway to the end" is not even remotely true: Although the Universe has been around for quite a while, the human race has only been present the last 100.000 years, while 'civilization' has existed a mere 10.000 years. This is kind of similar to the difference between 'half full' and 'half empty': Although the universe is halfway to it's end, kind of middle-aged, the life of humanity has only just begun: The timespan from the first humans, including inventing language, fire, the wheel, chess and civilization (probably in that order), will repeat itself 220,000 times over before the universe ends. Scaled to a human lifespan, humanity was born 3 hours ago! This implies that humanity hasn't even reached the toddler stage yet - I don't know about you, but I find the thought strangely encouraging... :)

Ken Thompson
I am afraid that it is true. The universe has reached middle age. The bright side is that we do know its age. the universe will be exactly 13,200,000,000 years old on Monday. 22 billion is not so short. If we start right away, a computer will be able to search the initial chess position to 34 plies before the end. Think of all we will learn.

Rafael Fernandez
Please tell Grand Master Nunn not to fret. After all, that estimate is based only on a new concept put in place to explain the homogeneity of the distribution of galaxies in the universe and red shift measurements that can be interpreted as meaning that the universe is expanding faster now. The concept of 'negative energy' which has an anti-gravitational effect is a kludge put in for lack of better explanation. Please remember that once we though the earth was flat and we had celestial spheres explaining the movement of the stars. We assume that the laws of physics are constant with time, but this may not be so. I suggest that he read a recent article in Discover Magazine (April 2003) by Tim Folger titled: "Was Einstein Wrong?" Here is an extract:

The day João Magueijo began to doubt Albert Einstein started inauspiciously. It was a rainy winter morning in 1995 at Cambridge University, where Magueijo was a research fellow in theoretical physics. He was tramping across a sodden soccer field, suffering from a hangover and mumbling to himself, when out of the gray a heretical idea brought him to a full stop: What if Einstein was wrong? What if, rather than being forever constant, the speed of light could change? Magueijo stood there in the downpour. What would that mean? In the worst case we have about 22 billion years to figure this out and I think we are moving fast. Cheers!

Jan Rogiers, Belgium
First of all, this negative energy business is (again) a theory provoking more new questions then answers. You could as well get depressed by worrying about the heavens falling down on your head. And if indeed we have less time in this universe : I am a firm believer in our sciences race. Every x-years our knowledge doubles, people get smarter, chess players play better. And some time in the future, long after chess has been solved (1.e4 loses !), but a lot earlier than 22 billion years, mankind (or its heritage), will have a solution and can survive the end of the universe. Indeed, 'we' will walk between dimensions at will ( take a look at stringtheory and d-branes - fascinating stuff !). And in case you're still worried ; they 'll have perfect anti-depressiva treatments by then.

Dr. Iman I Khandaker, Watchfield, Oxfordshire, UK
Still time for a thousand trillion blitz games... missing a bit of sleep of course.

Francois Vandamme
our scientific knowledge of the universe the big bang etc is not accurate enough to predict this statement.This statement is based on a lot of assumptions that maight be false.If E=mc2 is correct,and i am convinced it is universe cannot disappear. alot of physical statements had to be adapted in the last centuries due to better knowledge.same with the knowledge off chess grandmasters 100 years ago.

Rodrigo Jaroszewski
I will be quick, for I believe your time must be short (no puns intended). I believe that you shouldn't be so worried about this subject. Firstly, because 22 billion years is quite a huge time. Earth has nearly 4 billion years of age, and its inhabitants know almost every corner of it. Secondly, because humans follow the pace of the Universe too. If the Universe speed up, so will we, and actually we are! In the end, I don't believe everything is about material, as it would be pointless to live if that was the case. However, even if you are not religious be sure that whatever knowledge you leave in this world for mankind will keep us "accelerating" to the necessary speed.

Don't be depressed. Here are some "comforting" thoughts:- We still do not know much about the universe, and about Dark Energy and whether it really exists. It may well be consigned to the theoretical rubbish tip in a few years. By its own estimate, the Big Rip theory has 22 billion years to be proved wrong. Perhaps the ekpyrotic theory is right. Then we might be hit by another brane floating in the fifth dimension, at any time! This means we may have no warning to even realise we are about to die, so why get depressed about it? Long timespans divide people and galaxies almost as effectively as universes being created and destroyed. So we should not mind too much whether life continues in our universe in 20 billion years, or in some other universe. Good luck to all universes. Don't be so parochial John, about our particular one.

Serge Adelson
I just wanted to let Mr Nunn kown that although we only have 22 billion years to go, that is just enough for man to develop time machines. The plan is to constantly travel back in time and we'll never see the end of the universe.

Glenn Mercier
What does it matter what we can potentially achieve in 22 billion years? We're going to just procrastinate until the night before anyway. Well, at least people will forget Garry's Linares outburst by then. An in 22 billion years radjabov will finally be eligible for his driving license!

Alex Betaneli
You are so right! Perhaps we should all try to do what are BEST at as much as we can in the limited time that we have left. In your case this means wrting more chess books! Thanks a lot.

David Goldstone
I'm terribly sorry to be the bearer of even more bad news but according to the original article, there is actually only 20 billion years left, not 22.

Jean-Michel Péchiné
May be the best should be to play an ultimate game against the gentle Petit Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry!? For such a fantastic game, if you do agree, please, would you like to register on your digital neo super tech clock that the time control will be one move per 1 billion of year! We, arbiters, medias and presidents of the whole Stars Federations, have considered that this new time control is definitly the best to allow you, the chessplayers, to check deeply the quality of each one of the moves you envision to play on the largest board ever created, that means the whole universe reduced as a human board under its antic name of Vastu-Purusha Mandala !? I wish you the best for this non-eternal game! 22 moves is your absolute maximum to win - with the black - before the end, don't forget it!!

1.e4. Take your time now...

Ed Stoddard, Vashon, WA, USA
Living in the universe has always been hazardous. It is important that we truly understand our limitations, and that understanding truths about the circumstances and conditions of our existence will not necessary make us feel better. A simple example is that all human beings know their life will end some time in the future. It doesn't matter how good one is or how much one knows, death, a transformation of the body to dirt and dust again, will occur. If we look at this cycle of life and death in a grander scale, we will see that our universe may follow a similar pattern. We are helpless to do anything about it, just as we cannot avoid our own death. Therefore, to dwell on it is futile.

Granted, it can be depressing to realize the human race will expire completely sometime during the ending stages of the universe as we know it. But Mr. Nunn, you, during your life time, have become a strong grandmaster and authored some exceptional chess books because of the choices you have made in your life, the one thing you can control. You have left your mark in the chess world that will not be soon forgotten by many - I only wish I could have done such a thing. I lacked the kind of control and discipline necessary to make it happen. You have that discipline and control. Please use these two qualities when choosing your thoughts. The universe is not a problem any of us can solve. Life is here and now. Enjoy.

Shaun Pilk
Tell John Nunn that he needn't worry about the end of the universe for 5 reasons.

1. In 5 billion years the sun will explode

2. In about 3 billion years the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda and Earth will likely either be cast out into the coldness of space, or into the supermassive blackhole at the center of our galaxy.

3. The collision of large coments and asteroids that killed the Dinosaurs occurs once every 3,000 years and we are overdue.

4. We will most likely destroy ourselves with nukes before then.

5. Finally, the average life span is less 80 years.

Relativity prevents us from moving fast enough to escape the first 2. Probability and physics prevents us from escaping the third. Politics and terrorists are to blame for the fourth. I don't know who or what to blame for the last one.

Thomas Lightfoot, Beaumont, Texas
I have been a fan of yours for years and haven enjoyed playing over your games. John, don't be depressed. If you believe in God then you know his wisdom is beyond ours. In 22 billion years we all will hopefully be in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ. On the other hand, if you do not believe in the Holy one, take comfort that our lives are fleeting and what we do for other is what counts.

Bill Glennon
Mr. Nunn asks "What can one achieve in only 22 billion years?". I have calculated that this is almost enough time to learn all the lines in the Sicilian Najdorf, IF ONE STARTS IMMEDIATELY!. I therefore am going off to get my copy of NCO and the analysis board. Thank Mr. Nunn for the warning -- another few days, and it would be too late to start.

Vijay Kamath
I can clearly understand the reason for your depression. 22 billion years is clearly a very short time! But there are matters of even greater concern before that. The sun is expected to die 5 billion years from now, but conditions on earth would be uninhabitable much before that just 1 billion years from now!! If we do survive the death of the sun, we'll then have to survive the death of our galaxy, which would by then be devoid of any bright shining stars. Assuming we do survive these two events, then we can worry about the end of the universe. But by then I'm sure we would've thought of a way of surviving even the death of the universe! I might sound crazy, but who knows. Maybe we'll have evolved into beings that can exist in a different dimension altogether. Or maybe we'll escape into a parallel universe! Or maybe we would have mastered time travel, so we simply move back in time! As you see the possibilities are infinite. Hence there is no reason to be depressed, but rather we should all sit together and think of a way of escaping the event that is to occur 1 billion years from now.

Halit Burrniku, Macedonia
I may be wrong by many opinions, but the rate of human progress in every sense, to my opinion leads to one thing only. In billions of years humans will be able to fulfil any task they will even think of. Now comes my point: Humans are slowly but surely taking the role of a GOD. Thus I'm sure in 22 billion years those human GODS will find a way to make the nature and universe be still a decent place to live.

Walter Koroljow
The prophecies referred to by John just ASSUME that the underlying space-time manifold is Euclidean (R4 -- which I think John will understand). Einstein's equations do not presume any underlying manifold, and I know of no experimental evidence. If the underlying manifold is S4, for example, the big expansion becomes a big crunch. It might be worth noting that the Schwartzchild metric on the Kruskal manifold is the unique maximally extended solution of Einstein's equations for a spherically symmetric matter distribution. But the Kruskal manifold is R3 x S1 as I recall. In this special case, Einstein's equations imply a manifold which is not R4. There is much to learn yet. Do not despair! (Does anyone else want some comfort?)

MVH Tobias Nordquist/Sverige
Först vill jag säga tack för alla bra böcker speciellt: Rook Endings och Pawnless Endings. Jag är ett schackfan och fysik-student. Vad jag har förstått så kommer inte datorerna att kunna knäcka schackspelets gåta innan solen blir en jätte-dvärg.

A TRY ENGLISH (Soccer England-Sweden 1-1 a poor result for Sweden winning the group): Firts I want to say thank you for: Rook Endings and Pawnless Endings. I Am a chesslover and a physics student. What I have understand is that the computers will not have enough time to solve the "chessmysteri" befor the sun will turn into a big dwarf. That must be one good thing.

Cesar A. K. Grossmann
We don't have 22 billion years left. WE HAVE ONLY 5 BILLIONS, IN THE BEST CASE!

In 5 billion years, our Sun will go nova, and we will be blasted from existence, and everything we did. Check And in 3 billion years, our very galaxy, Milky Way, will colide and merge with the Andromeda galaxy, in an event that will last 1 billion year ( I don't know how it will affect our Solar System, or Earth, but I think we will suffer some way... But the things are getting worse. Every 60 million years an asteroid hit Earth and kills 70% of the life. The last one was at 65 million years (do the math and sleep well, if you can)... So, if someone is thinking in doing something, it's better to ACT NOW! We don't have so much time, and the clock is ticking...

Damian T. Rose
Just remember to "To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in a hour" This is the harmony of the cosmos in which we all play a key in the grand symphony of creation and destruction. Also remember Yin and Yang got together and they made a big bang that still echoes back to us from eternity. Find peace in TAO. (Quote by William Blake)

Steve Lopez
Like you, I too planned to live forever, so this is indeed a bit of sobering news. However, my plan is simply to drink more. If you're ever in my proverbial neck of the woods, I'll be happy to buy you a pint while we comiserate.

Mark Stump
Years ago I read about a different theory, and end, for the universe. And I was deeply troubled by the thought that no matter what we build, or discover, (no matter what great chess games we create and save for history): no matter what greatness the human race creates: our ancestors will someday face the total destruction of all that our entire race has ever done, plus the end of the race itself. And on a more personal note: all your descendants and all my descendants! But two considerations give me some comfort:

1) Mankind has BILLIONS of years left to understand how the Universe really works and then find a solution to the problem. Just five million (or so) years ago, we were Monkeys. In another five million years we could make vast strides, in science, even if we did not change, which we will: and being an optimist I imagine it will be a change for the better on the whole (not everyday, maybe not every century, but on the whole). In a THOUSAND five million year periods, (Five billion years is five million times 1000 [In the American system, in the British system 1,000,000,000 is a milliard and a billion has 12 zeros]) I expect we will be gods. And therefore the human race may be able to escape the end of this universe, or prevent it.

2) This brings me to my second point: Those "people" won't really be people. They will be our ancestors but they won't be anything like us, or our kids/ grandkids. They'll be a different race by then, related to us like we're related to ... well I don't know ( I don't trust any interpolation I'm tempted to use. But they WILL be vastly different. So, you see, before the universe ends, the human race, as we know it, will already be gone, and ancient, ancient, ancient history: replaced by whatever evolution, genetic entering, and the cumulative effect of a quintillion personal choices has in store for our genes. Now this may not make you feel any better, but it helps me

Jim Szczep
In view of Mr. Nunn's most recent revelation, this certainly brings to mind my own current state of existence and I pondered on this for a moment.

Assuming one's life, or for that matter anyone's life, the potential life span of the universe, the existence of intelligent life and everything as we know it, is finite with recyclable tendencies.

Over a few billion years, we will evolve into higher more intelligent beings. Our physical anatomy will also evolve in order to adapt to a different environment. The package that currently houses our intellect will be obsolete. Obviously, our planetary system will be quite different then it is today. However, for the moment, lets think of this as development and the evolution of intelligence. This scenario then assumes that Mr. Nunn and all other being is sort of a blanket intelligence, aside from the finger print of individuality that in all of us.

What does this have to do with Mr. Nunn's present state of mind and the above fore-mentioned intelligence mumbo jumbo? Let me clarify:

I feel Mr. Nunn's pain. I can only reassure him by saying there is enough time to discover and achieve all that there is to achieve, including mastering the infinite combinations found on the chessboard. I realize that we, intelligent being, have been set back a considerable amount of time (remember the dark ages and the Library of Alexandria?). After all, 78 billion years is a long time. However, we still have about 22 billion years minus the current years to present, to achieve our purpose in life (whatever that might be.assuming it to be acquiring knowledge about ourselves, the universe and to improve our overall existence). This leaves us approximately 12 billion years, which is plenty of time to reach our "purpose" or goal.

I think the most depressing aspect of all this existence and finite stuff, is that we are always on the verge of annihilation, due to a select few that have roamed and ruled this planet for centuries. Now that is depressing.

If we achieve this level of intelligence and understanding, then we have achieved our purpose. We would then have the luxury of starting all over again in a newly recycled universe. Just think the beauty of creating the Christmas puzzles all over again or some other fantastic feat.

There appears to be hope after all. On that note, I hope Mr. Nunn feels better.

Gerard Smith
I was going to start this letter on a less formal basis but I realised that a Dear John letter was probably the last thing you needed to hear after your devastating discovery.

I realise that 22 billion years is not a long time but I think that it should be adequate for most of your needs. It may not be a question of the "cup run'eth over" but more one of "is the cup half empty of half full."

Robert Caldwell asked the question "what would happen if the rate of acceleration increased?" however if this theory is true and this is a BIG IF what if the rate were to slow down? Has this been considered. What would the consequences of this be?

I think that it's a bit like playing the Sicilian to win. But who is playing it, is it Black or White. I think that this may be a more pertinent question to tax the minds. Someone in the future will come up with a way to avoid this happening. A bit like playing 1d4.

I had a serious illness a few years ago that resulted in a near death situation. This was not so bad in comparison to the fact that I had started to play the Queens Gambit Accepted before my illness started. After I recovered I had forgotten how to play this Defence. I am not sure that this was a blessing in disguise or a lost opportunity. I have since stopped worrying over the effects of the Big Bang and all the consequences it may lead to. I am having enough fun trying to figure out is the Alekhine sound.

Mark Hogarth, Captain, Hilsmark Kingfisher (4NCL)
Your prognosis may very well be correct. But to alleviate your depression of the universe ending in such a short space of time, think about your contribution and fellow pioneering English grandmasters such as Tony Miles to making British chess one of the dominant world forces in an even shorter time span, after a century of British chess being in the 'wilderness'.

Think of your own unique contribution to British chess, an inspiration to us all. Your efforts and others such as Miles, Speelman and Short will guarantee an English World Champion long before we and the universe return to nothing.

Map that time span logarithmnically against the expectation a century ago of England being a dominant force and project that against the previous anticipated life-span of the universe, and it would indeed exceed 100 billion years, or even a Googal to quote one infamous Army Major.

So time is of the essence to produce Englands first omdern day world champion. Let us make it happen and not waste the years we have left. We still have much to achieve. Others will build on what you have created, and if the experts who wrote the article prove to have a quarter of the powers and accuracy of your awesome calculating ability, then the opposite of what they have theorised may be true.

Matthew Alton, UNIX System Administration
Dr. Nunn experiencing time trouble! This simply will not do. I would encourage the good doctor to consider the capricious nature of these cosmological predictions and to take heart. After all, the scantiness of the available data (not to mention its great tenuousness) affords room for a vast array of ephemeral conjectures. Many of these, having proven upon further conjecture to be crack-potted, have come at last to nothing. One may as well look for one's solace to the valuation of stocks upon the NASDAQ -- the practice of sundry of my colleagues whose collective worldview has thereby been tinctured a most decidedly unrosy hue of late. No, my good doctor, these are not fit pursuits for learned men. Better we should maneuver wooden idols about upon a checquered plane in accordance with rules eternal and permanent, sanguine and untroubled by such motes. As to time pieces, let us smite them after every idolatrous move!

Roberto Pérez Urbiola, Mexico
How much can we achieve in only 22 billion years? A lot, really a lot. If we continue with an exponential growth in our knowledge, duplicating it every 100 years, hummmm well the universe would be too small to hold it all.

Many things could turn out in the way. New forces of nature could be discovered. Our view of physics has changed too often to say we got it all solved. I think our view of the universe will change once again many, many times.

Even if the end exists, we might discover how to create new infant baby universes, with even new laws of physics. The new research in String theory tells us that maybe we live in a multi-dimensional universe with many very small curled up dimensions. The dimensions and the strings define the number of fundamental forces and constants of physics. Create a new universe with different dimensions and you could create a new universe with new laws and a new time line. These laws if properly tuned could result in a more permanent universe.

Yes, we are far away from doing that, but exponential growth in knowledge could do it. Physics people are working hard, they don't know a lot, for example, ¿what would a universe with TWO time dimensions be like?

If matter and energy are the same, if time is relative to your motion [and gravity], if time started in the big band, if atoms are made of quarks and they are made of strings in a 11 dimensional existence, if a neutrino can pass through a light-year of lead without colliding, if electrons interfere with others that travel at another time (two-slit experiment), if simultaneous events are relative to the frame of reference, anything is probably possible.

Julian Ivanov
That is the funniest thing to laugh at for the last several months. That is Hillarious!!! Haven't laughed so much... Oh boy...

Nelson B. Rivera
I should not have read John Nunn's letter to ChessBase; now I am also depressed. With only 22 billion years left, I will, for sure, not be able to accomplish even a quarter of my plans. Tell John that some people do not appreciate him bringing bad news.

Chris Willard
I would also like to point out that since Mr. Nunn's note was sent on March 11, there are now only 21, 999,999,999 days left until the end of the universe.

Mike Jaqua, Portage, MI, USA
First the worse news. The universe may only have 22 billion years left but it will be entirely uninhabitable quite a few billion years earlier than that. Worse yet our own, dear Earth will be enveloped by the sun's expansion and fried in only 5 billion years or so. And worse still the Earth will be far too hot to live on in only one billion years or so due the aforementioned solar expansion. So we have about a billion years to get off this planet and then just a few billion more years to save the universe.

What good news can be offered after all those dismal revelations? Well to begin with let us consider that one billion years in the past the Earth had only just begun to develop anything above single celled life. In fact it was hardly more than a half billion years ago that we first saw life forms like the ones we know today. Hard shells and creatures possessed of multiple organs. Only 0.2 billion years ago mammals came along and humans just got here practically yesterday (less than one million years ago).

Chess only came along several hundred years ago, computers decades ago and chess playing computers within our lifetimes. Now the computers have almost worked out chess to a fare-thee-well. Soon the computers will need bigger challenges. We'll hand the problem of the expanding sun and the shredding universe over to the machines. They'll work on that while we can get back to enjoying human chess. We'll be able to continue enjoying ourselves and the computers will work out the big problems and tell us our next move. So put your faith in the machines and don't worry. :)

Jens Kristiansen, International Master, Denmark
Poor John. And to make your state of mind even more gloomy, here is a fundamental question popping up, when you experience that there is only 22 billions years left for the universe: The final evaluation of the initial position in chess - draw or a win for white/black? This could in principal be solved with the method of retrograde analysis, which is used in the endgame tablebases. As far as I have heard the strongest computer available nowadays can do about 35 billions calculations pr. second. Writers like Grooten and Fabel give some figures for the amount of the task - 10 in 120 games with an average of 40 moves. And then -with the above mentioned computerpower - 22 billions years is far from enough to solve the task! Thats VERY depressing. But...HOW strong should the computer to be able to finish the task? And then - as a supplementary question - is 22 billions years enough to provide the material for a book with the title, say "The ultimate book on 8-pieces endgames?"

Ok, for your comfort I reccomend you to read "A Hicthhikers Guide to The Galaxy" på Douglas Adams - if you have not done that allready. There you get the ultimate answer to everything - but you never get the question. Well, personally I am also rather depressed these times because of the "negative energy" humans are spreading around the planet. Its mostly about the answers the Bush and Blair want to give us - and we still do not know the questions, do we? 2 billions years means nothing if we -the humans - spoil it all in the next 5-10 years.

Bruce Humphrey
Wait!, there is still light at the end of the tunnel! There are 8,030,000,000,000 days left, which gives 192,720,000,000,000 hours, and this means 11,563,200,000,000,000 minutes. I haven't counted jump years to make it easier.

So, if you sleep 8 hours a day, you have 7,708,800,000,000,000 minutes left for other things.

There are 10e123 possible chess games, more or less. You wont have time to play them all, at one minute per move, but, if you discard the horrible blunders and you don't play to the end, you get a much smaller number, maybe only 10e14 (yes, I made it fit in the time left, that's the magic of speculation!). So, you could keep on playing all decent games, and you would still have spare time for writing your wonderful books, and even go to the pub occasionaly!

But we, the chess fans, prefer that you only play and write... because we don't need you to have a life, we only need our fix of your books, even more, we demand them!

Josef du Plessis, Tshikondeni Coal Mine, South Africa
I'm a geologist and because I'm aware of the fact that the oldest rocks found on earth were formed a mere 4 billion years ago, I wouldn't crack my head (or go the excessive drinking route) over the fact that we have more than 5 times that period to go before eternal darkness sets upon us!

I don't worry about that day, because I believe that every day I should do something that frightens me - I'm very likely to get killed before then (!) - so I took up chess... (I mean, looking at contemporary Gruenfeld and Sicilian Defence openings theory is scary!)

David Levy
I am sure that John's pessimism is unfounded. Modern science has made great strides in just about every aspect of life. The exponential effect of the growth of scientific knowledge has, of course, played a big part in the discoveries of the recent past compared with those in all of time before the recent past. The more that scientists know the quicker it is for them to make the next important discovery.

As a betting man, I would be willing to make a sizeable bet with John that within the next 1 billion years scientists find a way to extend the life of the universe by more than 1 billion years. If I win this bet it is clear that by repeated use of the techniques employed to achieve this goal, scientists will be able to ensure that the universe continues indefinitely.

David C. Matthews
That means there will not be enough time for computers to completely analyze and solve chess. There will still be room for humans.

Michael Post
Well, the only cheery news I have for Mr Nunn is that in 22 billion years, people and computers and every chessplayer we meet between now and then will still be reading his fine book on chess openings.

Sylvester Shamy, Wellington, New Zealand
Your concerns have struck a cord with me, and I'm amazed that I had not thought much about this till now. 22 billion years seemed like a long time until I read your letter and thought about things, and I think I see where you're coming from. If we were to have some pride in what we as people have achieved, then perhaps we stop thinking about our existence as being merely a unique and singular event in time. Indeed the more I think about it, the more it seems right to me to think of the evolution of the species, and more importantly, of human evolution, as a story. And like all good and inspiring stories, our tale deserves to live on and on, to be re-told and learned by generations, for all eternity. A never-ending story it should be. The fact is however, that this story must end. This is depressing. It would be little comfort to know that the end is 100 billion years away, but to be suddenly told that in fact, the end is to come in merely 22 billion years, is difficult to accept.

There is however, a lot that we can do. It would be a good start, for example, to not despair, no matter what the situation. After all, didn't someone once say that to despair is to lose all reason for living, despair being the most negative emotion. To despair is to lose all hope, and once that's gone, what's the difference between tomorrow and 22 billon years?

Let's take some time to think about what we as a species have achieved. One does not need to have an academic knowledge of anthropology to do so. A mere examination of our own bodies tells us all we need to know. Human beings are marvels of biological engineering. We can walk, talk, think, feel, taste and smell. Try this, close your eyes, empty your mind, and isolate your senses, one by one. Be silent, and then whisper. Be silent again, then inhale. Be silent, then taste the inside of your mouth. Has your mind been empty thus far? Think. Stand up and take a step forward. Go on, do this, one at a time. It will give you a great appreciation of what a marvel you are. But you're not alone. Every living thing around you has the ability for some, if not all of the senses. It completes this world we live in and makes every living thing around you, alive. This warm feeling of energy is our legacy to the universe. Long after all this is gone, every living thing would have lived. And experienced. And learned. And lived. The story must end, but the ending will be a happy one. We must stop thinking of purpose as a definite and positive end result. Instead, we have to accept purpose as being a cumulation of processes, and we can begin to understand that no matter what the end result, we would have had great purpose so long as we strive to appreciate and enjoy every moment of our lives. Get out there John, smell the flowers, feel the breeze, look at other creatures. Wonder about the beauty of it all, and marvel at the purpose.

This is one story that has a happy ending.

Antonio Olszewski
I belive your numbers are wrong. Please check out properly the Hubble diagram. The curvatures show me 23 billions of years.

Chris, Coquitlam BC, Canada
I've rescently heard that our planet alone only has 7.5 billion years of exsitence left. This is when the sun is predicted to turn into a red star and eventualy implode. However at this time there will only be the most basic forms of life still living on earth. That is because the levels of carbon dioxide, which plants and trees need to survive, is slowly diminishing. Obviously we need plants and trees to provide oxygen for us. So it is said that in 500 million years the level carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will be so low that human life on earth will be unable to survive.

In saying this it may seem like I'm trying to bring John down even more. Which I'm not. It just sounded to me that John made it seem like we still had 22 billion years here on earth and I didn't think you would want to misinform your readers like that.

I must admit I giggled a little when Nunn quoted that there is ONLY 22 billion years left in our universe. Intelligent life could die out and come back 3 or 4 times in that amount of time on our planet. It is a huge amount of time. So is 500 million years. I mean, who knows for sure that we're all going to be here tomorrow? I'm just trying to say that we should enjoy life while we can and not worry so much about what we can't control.

Heikki Väisänen, Helsinki, Finland
As in life in general the limited lifespan is not a flaw but an assurance of evolution for the better. The evolution of species would be impossible without limited lifespan. So, the evolution towards better universe(s) is only achievable with limited lifespan of our universe. Just maybe, in next universe, even if they can not play better chess, maybe they behave with more dignity!

Dave Bland, London
In 22 billion years I reckon I might have just about got the hang of the Sveshnikov Sicilian. Wouldn't bank on it though.

Sanjeev Deshmukh, India
I read your article and was indeed shocked at the theory that suggests that the Universe may last only 22 nillion years more rather than 100 billion years previous estimates had suggested. But that would have been a concern decades ago.

For I believe that mankind can now do wonders in 22 billion years that would not have been possible in 100 billion years. When you consider that kids are becoming grandmasters before becoming teenagers and grandmaster in teens are now having the strength to beat the great kasparov whom every demi-god of chess dreads, when you know that you can virtually shop without having any cash in the pocket or one can do trade and business without having any inventory or space , and when you realise that time and distance have ceased to be a barrier I too feel the same :- What can one achieve in 22 billion years?.

Well mankind has evolved so much that what it could have achieved in 100 billion years , it can achieve now in 22 billion years . But to know what might be achieved in 22 billion years , I suggest that we wait for another 11 billion years( since you say that we are nearly halfway to the aforesaid period of time). But since the subject is your depression rather than the existence of the universe , I think it might be a good exercise to alleviate your suffering by filling your heart with Hope (that wonderful gift that God has given to man) that some how Man in the course of 11 billion years will find a way to prevent the destruction of universe until 100 billion years.

Joel S Ngubane, DBA
First I want to tell you that I love for the impact you have had in our Chess games worldwide, your contribution means a lot to each and every chess lover like me, I even respect your archivements in Chess as a Grand Master, but,

I want to tell you this important message, you cross borders too much in your worrying, there are things on earth that are out of our control and there are things that we can control 100%, As far as I can see this worrying of your does not belong to us human intellectuals, TRUST THE LORD OUR GOD he is in control of everything.

Sometimes we human being with our little knowledge we tend to think that we can control and handle everything and jeorpadising great help that is awaiting for us from GOD, he longs and longs to help us in anyway and wait and wait for our intelligence to give up as soon as we have done that giving up, he then pitch up and offer his great help to his creation(us). Last but not least, it might be 22 billion years left of 03 years left its only him that knows better than everybody, so stop worying about your intelligence instead use it for the advancement of human technology in a positive way and GOD will bless you more.

I wish you great Chess future and may GOD bless you abundantly, you are still my best GrandMaster in South Africa, Pretoria.

Alan Hartley
What, are you out of ice cream?

Torbjorn Wiklund, Sweden
I recommend reading the book "Age of the spiritual machines" by Raymond Kurzweil. In short, even if there is "only" 22 billion years left, these cant be compared with the previous 22 billions years. Kurzweil argues that if you look at the speed of evolution and technology development, you see that the speed is increasing rapidly, even exponentially.

To visualize this you can take the famous story about the guy who got 1 corn of rice at the first square of a chessboard, 2 at the next, then 4, then 8, then 16 and so the 32nd sqaure the amount of rice is that of entire China, at square 64 its about 1.8444*10^19 corns wich is around 4300 billions times larger than the amount of rice in China.

The answer to the question "What can one achive in only 22 billionn years?" is, if we assume that the amount of development and achivements behaves like the corns on the chessboard, infinitely more than you can ever imagine...

E. N. Pareis, Ph.D.
I have problems understanding why you are depressed at the latest theory re the death of the universe. I am convinced that the presence of life on this earth may endure for ony several centuries, and I think that there is general ageement among cosmologists that the earth has something of the order of five billion years before it is, literally, toast. If the above is no consolation, keep remembering that physicists are constantly revising their theories -- who knows what they may be thinking a billion years from now. Finally, about 65 years ago a read a book by H. G. Wells (I think it was An Outline of History) in which he stated that in the future mankind might become masters of time and space.

Ryan Harper, Trinidad and Tobago
John I understand your frustration and just wanted to assure you that there is no need to worry becasue you won't be around in at least the first 80 years of the 2 billion left. Therefore, you won't have to experience the great depth of depression when in the 2 billionth year from now we see that nothing much was accomplished. So my friend don't be depressed that it's only 2billion years..yes it's so short. Much more depressing is the fact that you won't be around for 1,999,999,900 of the 2 billion years. Since you are not depressed about that well then all is well, you ain't missing nothing since there ain't enough time to do something to miss.

Eran Karu
I believe that our universe is holographic. The reality that we perceive in everyday life is an illusion, and our brains do not let us see directly the reality as holographic. In fact we do not know how the holographic universe looks like. To understand what hologram is, we have to take a look at a holographic photo-picture. When we look at it we see the distance as perspective beyond it, but actually the distance does not exist - it is just an illusion. Therefore, if it is true that our universe is holographic, feeling bad about the "Big Rip" theory does not make sense at all. Do you agree with that? :)

Monte Sonnenberg
Dear Grandmaster John: You have thrown yourself into a black hole over nothing. The operative words in your missive are "if one assumes..." Astrophysicists are always coming up with novel theories about how the universe works. When more interesting theories come along, these tend to be discarded. They certainly don't have a shelf life of 22 billions years, let alone 100 billion or more. Just remember that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.By definition, energy can't be less than zero. Negative energy is just a construct that theoretical physicists came up with to make their unworkable concepts fly. Remember Ockham's Razor. Eventually, the collective energy of the universe will fall dormant and the universe will go black. All matter will then contract back to its centre to a point that is infinitely small. The mass will again become so great as to be unsustainable, resulting in another of a long series of Big Bangs. So don't be depressed. I don't want to have to cheer you up again in another 150 billion years...Monte

Sampson Matthis
Oh please! Tell John to get a life. How old is he anyway? He looks like he's around 50 in that picture. If that is the case he should worry about the next 20 years, and not the next 20 or so billion!! Life is short. Enjoy it while you have it.

Paul & Julie Bain
Sweat no load before it's time. Jack Kerouac said "Nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody", and Ken Kesey wrote " When people think they have the answers they stop thinking. Forget about the answers, seek the mystery". And the Dalai Lama told me to my face "Smile". He was laughing when he told me that. Love you and thank you for the wonderful books you have written.

David M. St. Pierre
If God had enough power and wisdom to create the universe, he certainly can fix whatever ails it -- and 22 billion years ought to give him enough time.

Anthony Martini II
Tell John not to worry, he hasn't taken into account Chaos Theory, which would alter any linear progression of time and space. Also, the theory of relativity does not take into account quantum mechanics, and until there is a solid unified field theory in place, no accurate assumption can be made about "negative energy"...

Roland Chrisjohn
Geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon, who heads Transdyne Corporation in San Diego, set forth the foundations and demonstrated the feasibility of a giant nuclear reactor at the center of the earth. His new article, being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides the strongest evidence yet and sheds light on a previously unappreciated peril that all humanity ultimately will face. Computer simulations of a nuclear reactor in the Earth's core, conducted at the prestigious Oak Ridge National Laboratory, reveal evidence, in the form of helium fission products, which indicates that the end of the georeactor lifetime may be approaching.

'The earth's nuclear furnace could die in as little as 100 years or as long as one billion years -- the uncertainty is great," said Herndon. Herndon notes that at some yet unknown point in time after the demise of the georeactor, the presumed energy source for the geomagnetic field, the magnetic field will collapse and, unlike other times in geological past, this time it will be unable to re-start.'"

The Discovery Channel also ran a program over the weekend that stated that the Earth's atmosphere will entirely escape within one billion years... John Nunn's rosy scenario presumes humanity will be able to leave and reestablish itself elsewhere in a safer location and pick up 21 billion more years...

Finally, a Horizon program on Supervolcanoes 2 years ago cited research that the area in or around Yosemite National Park in the USA is due to release pent-up geothermal energy in an event that would make the Toba explosion of 70,000 years ago look like a firecracker... after the Toba eruption, the Earth went through a 100-year winter that reduced human populations to 5 or 10 thousand individuals (from whom we are all descended). This "event" could happen tomorrow, or the day after, or... etc.

Proloy Coomar Pramanik, Hyderabad, India
I share your sorrow. But at least we could take heart from the fact that we would still be left with one move per year (per cpu clock-cycle to be precise, I guess) and still have some more to spare. At least we're not running out of moves in this position. Or is it that we should be more worried that we are entering the time control before managing to complete our calculations. Ah depression is increasing now....

Juliet Z. Ong
Indeed it is very depressing to think about the end of the universe. And John Nunn is not alone. There are people even more depressed of having the thought of the " End of the World." I am one of them! One time it comes to my mind. Why so much of our energy are consumed in the studies and research of the outside-world, where in fact our world needs more research and studies for it's very own existence? Check this out;1. there is NO studies done in the significance of oil underneath to the structure of our mother Earth. Isn't it the cause of so many deadly earthquakes all over the world. Signs of deteriorating condition underneath. The science or the scientist would explain that there is ground movement underneath and filling -up the vacuum or something. But did not explain why there is a vacuum. 2. The mining of minerals of all sorts, all the small things that people give so much value than the ground they are standing at. Take a look at the huge craters man created in search of Diamonds. The people dearly so much, when it is not even essentials to life. Silly doesn't it? More stupidity of mankind ignoring and expiditing the mother Earths distruction. So, to GM Nunn, all I could say is 22 billion yrs is far far beyond our imagination compared to millions of yrs to Earth's Destruction because of mankind. I would like to share to GM Nunn a reading from the Bible. Jesus Christ say;" Live your life today and leave the worry for tomorrow, for the worry has its own worry." "So, Lets play Chess and all deppressions will be forgotten!"

What a waste of bandwidth! Pure garbage for a chess column. Why don't you post the solutions of those Christmas chess puzzles instead that you kept putting off?

Laurence Coker
I don't see a problem. It is just an estimate in the middle of a long equation. We can only estimate the beginning and only estimate the end. We really only estimate the size of the universe. Who knows how big it really is. We are limited by our senses. In the future we may have better ways to make estimates and the whole equation may change. We haven't even traveled outside our Solar system. When we do , we may see something entirely different. And then, we may have to change our estimate again, and again, and again. I think the estimate will always be in a state of flux, and for all practical purposes may well be some infinite number without an end, unlike the finite lifetime each of us has.

G. Masters
Strive to make the most of every minute. After all, we have only 11,563,200,000,000,000 of them left.

Paulo Guilherme de Mattos, Brasil
First I want to congratulate all the ChessBase team for the GREAT work!!! Keep it up!!! Here is my words to GM John Nunn: It's very sad to know that a great chess writer is passing by a difficult moment. I can "share" your difficult with me, because a few time ago, I had a lot of problems too, such as depression and panic sindrome. To get a "cure", I went to a psychologist, make some therapy, getting better day-by-day, and focusing on good things... This is my "suggestion". I know it´s very difficult to "see a light at the end of the tunnel", but about your concernings, I have a few to say: Man, if you think about this 22 billions of years, the life is so short that you have to enjoy every minute, every second of it... Life have many wonderful things, one of them is the chess, which love we share. Just don´t let this "small bad things" try to take control, try to focus on the beauty of life and go on, pal (I´m not a GM, but everyone who loves chess is my brother!!)


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