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If a Cosmic Bubble Destroys the Universe, Scientists Now Know When It’ll Happen

Don’t panic yet; the end won’t be for at least 10 octodecillion years, if it happens at all

(NASA)
smithsonian.com

It’s likely the universe will eventually come to an end. There are a few options for this demise, all equally foreboding.

For example, the end could come as "heat death" (a reverse of the Big Bang known as the Big Crunch) or The Big Rip (when dark energy becomes so powerful it tears everything we know to pieces). But another possibility that has gained traction is the Cosmic Death Bubble.

The details of this death by bubble are pretty complicated, but it's based on the idea that the universe is metastable, which means it’s not in its lowest or most stable energy state. While we’re okay for now, there’s the (remote) possibility that the universe could drop into a lower energy state, which would set off a giant light-speed bubble that destroys everything it touches.

Now, as Erik Vance at LiveScience reports, researchers have calculated how long before this Cosmic Death Bubble comes for us, if it happens at all.

The idea came about with the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. The find was revolutionary, confirming much of what scientists had only previously hypothesized. But it also confirmed the idea of a potential death bubble, suggesting that a so-called Higgs Field permeates the universe, giving particles mass. Though the field is currently in a stable energy state, measurements of the Higgs Boson suggest that the energy state could change.

Imagine energy as a series of peaks and valleys. Currently, Vance explains, we're in an energy state that's at the bottom of a valley. The next, lower energy state (i.e. a deeper valley) is right next to us. But to get into that lower valley, we must first roll up the side of our current divot, which takes a lot of energy.

Another possibility, however, is that the Higgs Field could undergo a process known as quantum tunneling, which would allow it to reach the next energy state in a process known as vacuum decay, by tunneling through the valley wall, no massive energy spike needed.

“[W]hen you do this calculation using the standard physics we know about, it turns out we're right on the edge between a stable universe and an unstable universe," theoretical physicist Joseph Lykken of Fermi National Laboratory tells Kelly Dickerson at LiveScience. “We're sort of right on the edge where the universe can last for a long time, but eventually it should go ‘boom.'"

So when should we expect the Higgs Field to release this bubble that will disintegrate our nuclei and turn the universe into a soup of molecules and atoms? That’s just the question a team from Harvard set out to answer.

In a new paper published in the journal Physical Review D, the researchers calculate that the formation and collapse of a particle called an instanton will likely set off the Death Bubble between 10 quinquadragintillion years (that’s a one with 139 zeros after it) and 10 octodecillion years (a one with 58 zeros after it).

“That is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very long time," lead author Anders Andreassen tells Vance. “Our sun will burn up and many things will happen in our solar system before this is very likely to happen.”

The authors also suggest that “[t]here’s a chance this particle has collapsed in a distant corner of the cosmos,” and that the death bubble is already speeding in our direction.

But as Robert Walker at Science 2.0 writes, there's no need to worry. The paper shows the probability of a Death Bubble having already formed is so remote it could be considered impossible. And not everyone is convinced that the universe will come to such an end.

Physicist Vincenzo Branchina of the University of Catania, who was not involved in the study, tells Vance that the calculations need to be taken with a grain of salt. The new study only looks at the standard model of physics, which has not integrated new ideas like quantum gravity or dark matter, which are little understood and could completely change their conclusion—perhaps even making the universe more stable.

“I wouldn’t put my money on this being the end of the story," Andreassen tells Vance. "I would expect dark matter to come kick in and change the story.”

So there’s no reason to worry about the Cosmic Death Bubble for now. Especially when there are other, more pressing problems to keep us up at night.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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