You are going to die. So am I. These are facts.
You are going to die. So am I. These are facts.
The question of how to deal with the reality of death is one as old as mankind. Billions of people, living and dead, have put their hopes on an afterlife. The promise of Heaven, Valhalla, Elysium, reincarnation, or even a decent hell makes death but an inconvenience.
For atheists, however, there is no such benefit to death. It is merely the end of the one and only existence that can be confirmed. Death can take on an extra aura of fear without the benefit of an afterlife. The realization of death's finality can be unsettling for the non-believer, and is one reason why the religious feel confronted by atheists.
Luckily, many great minds in history had thoughts on how to face death without the comfort of an afterlife.
Many philosophers who did believe in the divine, such as Epicurus, did not believe in an afterlife. While the end of existence troubled them, the idea of being dead did not. Mark Twain, the deistic author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wrote in his autobiography that:
“Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born — a hundred million years — and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together."
That is to say, in death you stop existing so you can't be bothered by it. There is no longer a “you" to be bothered.
Epicurus shared that sentiment, saying, “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us." Epicurean philosophy focused on life, rather than death, and practitioners strove to not fear it.
Socrates weighed in too. In Plato's The Apology, Socrates supposes that he will either live on after death and debate the great heroes of Greek History, or cease to exist. He agrees with Epicurus that ceasing to exist can't be painful, as he would no longer exist to feel pain. The lack of debate in this scenario probably did disappoint him though.
This kind of skepticism about the chances of an afterlife can be healthy, as Michael Shermer explains in his recent Big Think interview.
Okay, so non-existence might not be unpleasant, but I really don't want to stop existing in the first place!
Well, most people don't like the idea of eternal oblivion. However, if it is the case then we had best figure out how to face it. The science on the matter is pretty definite too; the current neuroscientific view is that brain death causes the annihilation of consciousness and nothingness forevermore. So, we might be out of luck.
For the existentialists, particularly Martin Heidegger, acceptance of death was a key part of living. In the face of death each choice in life becomes an important one. They took the end of existence as a motivation to value existence all the more. The existentialists push you to accept your inevitable demise, remember it, and use it as a reason to embrace life. Such a positive view on oblivion is hard to find elsewhere.
Philosopher Luc Bovens offers us a more modern view on how to approach death secularly in his Big Think interview.
What about the cosmos? The idea that the universe still cares after I die sounds enjoyable, can I have that if I give up the afterlife?
The same science that supports the idea that death is the final end can give us comforting words too.
American physicist, comedian, and author Aaron Freeman wrote Eulogy from a Physicist describing how death can be viewed from a scientific worldview. A eulogizing physicist would remind a mourning family that:
“No energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world."
Even if we are not immortal, many of our component elements are. Even if we die, parts of us never will, those parts can affect every part of the universe long after we are dead and gone. That is the comfort science can offer.
Death is unpleasant to think about. Our search for ways to make it easier to handle or even avoid it entirely goes back as far as human history. With the death of God, and the increasing number of atheists around the world, trying to help people deal with the idea of death may be a bigger task than ever. As Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death: “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."
For those who don't believe in an afterlife, viewing death without smoke and mirrors can be a great comfort. Reflecting on how people have faced oblivion in the past can help us all face it in the future, whenever it comes — and come it will.
Scientists work out methods for finding the difference between the magnetic moments of protons and antiprotons and see that they’re the same.
Why are we here, anyway? No, not in the what’s-the-meaning-of-it-all sense, but why haven’t matter and antimatter completely obliterated each other, the universe and us? In nature, two identical things that are 180° out of phase with each other — as matter and antimatter seem to be — cancel each other out. So, um, why are we here?
In audio, for example, two identical sound waves that are out of phase in this way produce silence:
So even if, say , you’re talking about identical recordings of something loud like a car horn, you get:
So we’ve got a problem with matter and antimatter not doing this, or rather, we should have a problem. Physics’ standard model says that when the universe came into being at the Big Bang, an equal amount of matter and antimatter was generated that should have — in our current understanding — wiped each other out, preventing the universe as we know it from forming.
Scientists have been thinking there must be something we haven’t come across yet that makes matter and antimatter not truly identical. A just-released study in the journal Nature reveals the frustrating outcome of a recent search for that difference at CERN. Christian Smorra, a physicist with their Baryon–Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE) collaboration, says, “An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is,” because, “All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist.”
Previously, scientists have tried to find some difference other than polarity in matter and antimatter, measuring their mass and electric charge, and with a study last year of the properties of hydrogen and anti-hydrogen atoms: Nothing.
One aspect scientists haven’t been able to compare precisely before were the magnetic moments of the proton and antiproton — there’s been simply no way to do it. ( A magnetic moment is a measurement of an object's tendency to align with a magnetic field.) So ten years back, a team at BASE began trying to work out how they could.
BASE’s antiproton decelerator at CERN (STEFAN SELLNER, FUNDAMENTAL SYMMETRIES LABORATORY, RIKEN, JAPAN)
In 2014, BASE announced their first breakthrough: They could measure the magnetic moment of protons by trapping them in a magnetic field and inducing quantum jumps in the field’s spin using a separate magnetic field.
Tricky as that was, performing the same measurement in antiprotons was even thornier, since antiprotons are immediately destroyed when they come in contact with regular matter, such as one of the scientists’ containers.
The team figured out how to increase the the lifespan of antiprotons by holding them in an innovative, purpose-built iridium-sealed copper cylinder.
The chamber is said to look not unlike a Pringle’s can. (SELLNER, ET AL)
CERN describes the operation of the chamber, the most effective antimatter container ever made:
The reservoir trap is inside a cylinder with a volume of 1.2 litres. The particles are trapped by two overlying magnetic and electric fields, which keep the particles in a small volume in the centre of the trap. On one side of the trap there is a metal window, thin enough to allow the antiprotons to pass through but strong enough to ensure complete insulation from the outside. All the other sides of the trap are made from solid copper. The cylinder is then cooled to about 6 K (-267 °C) with liquid helium, so that an almost perfect vacuum is created.
A stream of antiprotons was fired into the frigid container on November 12, 2015, and the team was able to hold them there for an impressive 405 days.
During that time, they were able to run the magnetic moment measurement procedure they used for protons.
The new research documents the results of their efforts: the magnetic moment of an antiproton, out to nine places, is −2.7928473441 μN (μN is the symbol for micronewton force). And guess what? That’s identical to the magnetic moment of a proton. Could the difference lie somewhere beyond nine mathematical places?
Maybe, but, as Stefan Ulmer, leader of the BASE team avers, “This result is the culmination of many years of continuous research and development, and the successful completion of one of the most difficult measurements ever performed in a Penning trap instrument.”
So, for now, the puzzle continues, and scientists will keep sleuthing in hopes of solving this fundamental mystery : Why are we here?