Stephen Hawking has unfortunately sparked worry in the public after it was revealed that he believes a cosmic death bubble, caused by changes to the field that the infamous “god particle” is associated with, could wipe out the known universe. To add fuel to the fire, he wrote in the preface to his new book that it could happen at any time, with no prior warning.
Hawking, like many other experts in the field, believes that one day a change in the universe’s energy state could cause the universe to “undergo catastrophic vacuum decay” whereby a vacuum bubble expanding at the speed of light plows through space, destroying everything in its path. But don’t worry, you don’t need to start ticking off your bucket list yet as even if it does happen, it probably won’t occur for billions of years.
The Higgs boson is a fundamental particle that was first predicted back in 1964 by a group of physicists, including Peter Higgs. The Higgs boson accompanies an invisible energy field called the Higgs field which is responsible for mass. The discovery was important because it fills a missing gap in the Standard Model of particle physics which explains three of the four fundamental forces at work in the universe: electromagnetic, strong and weak forces. Gravity, the fourth force, is not part of the Standard Model.
Using data collected at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, physicists were able to measure the value of the Higgs boson mass, which was found to be approximately 125 gigaelectron volts (GeV), or 125 billion electron volts. This precise mass is required to maintain the universe at the verge of instability, or at a metastable state. But if this state collapses, the universe will become unstable, triggering a catastrophic event.
So what will cause this Higgs doomsday? Well, physicists believe that the energy state of the Higgs field may be slowly changing over time. Currently, it exists comfortably in a minimum potential energy state and an enormous amount of energy would be required to change into another state. However, a change in energy could spark something called quantum tunneling which would basically provide a shortcut into a lower energy state. This transition is sometimes called “vacuum decay.” If it occurred, the bubble of this new vacuum state would expand through space at the speed of light, obliterating everything in its path.
Interestingly, according to theoretical physicist Joseph Lykken, we are currently sitting comfortably on the edge between a stable and an unstable universe. “We’re sort of right on the edge where the universe can last for a long time, but eventually it should go ‘boom.’ There’s no principle that we know of that would put us right on the edge,” he said in a recent lecture.
It seems that most physicists are in agreement that the universe probably won’t transition to a lower energy state any time soon. According to theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack, if it were going to happen, “it would have done that in the very early universe, which was a very energetic time.” Furthermore, it is still possible that the calculations are wrong, and the universe is more stable than it’s made out to be.
“Everything Hawking says is true: the Higgs potential is what governs what vacuum state we’re in, and we can transition,” said Mack in her article on the topic. “But it’s really unlikely that would happen. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to defend the poor little Higgs boson—it’s not out to hurt us.”