A Tale of Hawking and Higgs and the Universe Ending Bubble
Stephen Hawking has been quoted in the news recently saying that the Higgs particle could be the utlimate doomsday device, potentially destroying the entire universe in one (light-speed traveling) fell swoop.
You may want to read this fast.
Seriously though, Don’t Panic 😛
The Higgs, as many people know, is the particle whose existence was confidentally confirmed by the LHC a couple of years ago as the particle (a field really) that imbues mass to all particles in the universe that care to throw their weight around.
Hawking has always had a somewhat perplexingly irascible relationship with the Higgs particle. He bet Physics Professor Gordon Kane $100 that it would never be discovered. He obviously lost that bet but when the discovery was announced he claimed that physics itself was now actually less interesting. Now, in the preface to his new new book “Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space,” Hawking makes the following claim.
“The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100 billion gigaelectronvolts (GeV)…This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.”
Sounds kinda nasty doesn’t it?
Am I worried? No. Why? Well there’s lots of reasons.
First of all, Hawking has had a predilection of late of crying wolf a bit regarding the future of humanity. He said in a recent documentary that if humans ever meet extraterrestrials, we may fare just as well as the Native Americans did when they met Columbus. This is certainly true and I’m sure the press exaggerated his fears but the odds of us ever meeting them face to face should be far down the list of stuff to be worried about. Early in 2014 he was quoted as saying that Artificial Intelligence, if we ever create it, could be the biggest event in human history and possibly the last. Ok, he was right about that one.
Let me be clear before I go on that I absolutely adore Stephen Hawking and in no way am I even remotely putting him in the same league as Michio Kaku as a scientist who seems to love sound bites above all else regardless if they are oversimplified, exaggerated, or just totally fucking incorrect.
Secondly, Hawking himself says the following regarding the possibility of humans causing Higgs particles to end our existence as we know it:
“A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth…and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate.”
The bottom line that physicists agree on (even Hawking) is that the scenario he quotes in his book is hypothetical and even if it does happen, it probably wouldn’t happen for countless eons.
I don’t know why Hawking would seem to stress a fear that he considers far beyond unlikely but hey, pointing out an obscure and very interesting fact of physics to help sell books and get people talking at the very least gives me an opportunity to talk about some cool shit.
The idea behind all this universal doom and gloom can be encapsulated in the following:
The claim being made here (by Hawking and others) is that a bubble can appear (spontaneously or after enough energy is marshaled) that contains a lower energy vacuum than the normal every-day garden-variety vacuum that we know and love. This bubble would get straight to work expanding at the speed of light consuming the universe; de-existing everything that currently exists.
HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN
This could theoretically happen if the vacuum of spacetime is not in its lowest energy state and somehow gets “kicked” into a lower one. Compare this to a ball resting at the bottom of a valley. The ball is happy to stay there for quite a while but if something disturbs it, it could potentially roll out of that valley and descend into an even lower one. That kick could be a concentration of a tremendous amount of energy or it could be as simple as a random (yet exceedingly rare) quantum fluctuation that gets the process going. That’s why Hawking referred to our universe as metastable. This means that it could exist in a higher energy state for extended periods and appear stable but still revert to a lower energy state all of a sudden.
I find a lot of agreement among physicists that it is incorrect to say the Higgs itself can cause this transformation. According to the standard model of physics, if we use the mass of the Higgs (which we now know) we can use it to calculate (along with the mass of the top quark) whether or not our universe exists in a truly stable vacuum state or a higher-energy but shorter-lived metastable one. Directly blaming the Higgs then for the result of that calculation seems kinda silly.
SO WHAT WOULD THIS BUBBLE DO
We’re talking about destruction that would cause Michael Bay to shit his pants.
The bubble would expand at the speed of light destroying everything it overtakes. Inside this bubble of lower vacuum energy, the laws of physics and all the fields permeating the universe would be different. Existence within this bubble would therefore be inimical to anything and everything in our universe right now. The particles and forces that we’ve painstakingly categorized and studied for generations would suddenly be moot and coldly swept away. Atoms would be engulfed, nuclei would break down and new particles, fundamental forces and structures would probably arise in their place. This version 2.0 of our universe may exist solely as just boring old hydrogen or perhaps it would eventually form into fantastic configurations and life-forms that we literally could never imagine. Either way, we’d be toast.
WHY WE SHOULDN’T WORRY
Some physicists claim that a transition to a different vacuum state won’t happen ever because it would have already happened billions of years ago due to the incredible energies involved during cosmic expansion.
According to Joseph Lykken, theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, If this scenario does comes to pass, it won’t happen for 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
As to humans causing this catastrophe, we just don’t have anywhere near the mojo required. High-energy events happen all the time in the universe right now that are much bigger than anything we can do with our puny proton particle accelerators. The highest energy cosmic rays for example are testaments to forces a million times greater than anything we’ve done on earth.
Of course, a bubble could have already formed a million light years away and a million years ago, meaning that it’s right at our doorstep. If that’s the case, at least you finished this article.
Image Credit: AFP/GETTY