Several readers of Lightning Rod have suggested we address the surprising news that surfaced earlier this month when scientists announced a new way the world could end – a scenario informed by the discovery of the Higgs Boson last summer. The issue seemed like a natural one for Higgs, and he has cordially agreed to step in.
Higgs: Hi, Higgs here. For a long time, you humans equated the end of your world with the end of the universe, but science has shown that the universe will go one without you. You’ve come to realize that your species might go extinct and that other living things would survive and not miss you. And eventually the sun will die and the all life on Earth will end, but other stars in the galaxy will go on shining, their plants happily revolving around them.
T.S. Eliot asked whether the world would end with a bang or with a whimper. In my informal survey of humanity I’ve concluded that you vastly prefer a bang. A bang gives you the psychological closure you seem to need. It also absolves you of any guilt you might feel for leaving Earth with all those landfills.
In the 19th century, people worried about a whimpering kind of ending known as “heat death” in which everything came to a sort of lukewarm equilibrium after which nothing interesting could possibly ever happen again. (That doesn’t scare me. I just go to sleep when I’m bored.)
For a while in the 20th century there was hope the universe would collapse in a big crunch, thus starting a new cycle. Most physicists say that’s not going to happen. Sorry guys.
But now we have an equally dramatic scenario offered by physicist Joe Lykken of Fermilab. Earlier this month, he suggested that measurements of the Higgs boson mass allow another kind of end. It’s possible, according to Lykken, that the universe is metastable and “wants” to fall into a more stable state.
This is not an anthropomorphic use of the word want – it’s just the same thing as a marble on a table “wanting” to fall to the floor if it rolls over the edge. Once our universe rolls over the edge there’s no way for it to get back up.
In Lykken’s picture, it’s remotely possible that a random event will occur in which a bubble pops into existence containing a more stable kind of empty space. Because this kind of space is more stable than our kind of space, it would spread and subsume our universe. The bubble would move outward at the speed of light so we wouldn’t have time to think about it before it was all over.
Luckily for me, I’m in a good position to investigate this idea. I’ve recently been awarded a fellowship to work as a feline-in-residence at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. My role is rather hands-off. But I send my human companion down each day to deal directly with the physicists. Upon hearing this new end-of-the-world idea, I assigned her to go chat with David Gross, who is a Nobel winning theoretical physicist. He said Lykken’s idea was “amusing” and plausible.
But it’s all very provisional, Gross said. Any number of subsequent discoveries of new particles would deem our universe stable again. And the other reassuring fact, he said, is that a takeover of some more stable form of space hasn’t happened yet in the 13 plus billion year age of the universe. So it probably won’t happen for billions or trillions of years in the future. If it happened later this year, for example, it would be downright weird.
In my opinion, Lykken’s idea has gotten attention because it satisfies the human need for a clean, dramatic, regret-free ending. It would seem fair enough after more than 13 billion years that our universe would step back and give some other type of universe a chance. The only worrisome aspect of all this is that Lykken deems the more stable kind of universe “boring,” as if perhaps this type of space can’t support cats or other forms of intelligent matter.
None of us want to see the world destroyed by expanding bubbles of boringness. Even Lykken hates the idea. Here’s how he was quoted in Discovery News: “There will be a new universe, a much more boring universe, so I hope this doesn’t happen.” That’s starting to sound more like a whimper than a bang. And it would all happen so fast that Lykken wouldn’t even get to say “I told you so”.Thank you for letting me express my thoughts. Higgs.