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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Doomed Universe?

Gian Giudice is a rather smiling and relaxed person for someone who has just shown the Universe might be doomed. This rather shaking discovery did not induce any lack of sleep to this CERN theorist whom I met yesterday. He and his colleagues showed in their latest calculations that if the Standard Model holds beyond all what we have seen so far, the Higgs field will change its value and all matter as we know it will simply cease to exist.

But rest assured, nothing is due to happen for roughly another 10100 years, that is 1 followed-by-100-zeros years. As Gian put it, we should not stop paying our taxes. Given that the Universe is only about 13.77 billion years old, it still gives us plenty of time. One billion is “only” nine zero, a very small number in comparison with the time estimated for this change to happen.

What he and his colleagues found is that we live in a Universe having parameters sitting just on the edge. Their calculations established that the stability of our Universe depends on the specific values assumed by various entities such as the masses of some fundamental particles. Assuming the new boson found last July is the Higgs boson and has a mass of 126 GeV, and injecting the known value of the top quark mass (roughly 173 ± 1 GeV), implies the Universe sits in a meta-stable region. This means the Universe is doomed to undergo some sort of “phase transition” at some distant time in the future.

The left plot, extracted from their paper, shows three types of regions depending on the value of these two masses: the red ones indicate that the Universe would have been unstable and would not have formed. The green region corresponds to a set of values leading to eternal stability, where the Higgs field would remain unchanged forever. The yellow region describes a meta-stable region. The right plot shows that, with the assumed mass values, we fall in the meta-stable region, where eventually the Higgs field value will change, leading to a complete collapse of all atoms.

The Higgs field is a physical entity, just like a magnetic field around a magnet. And the Higgs boson is simply an excitation of this field, just like a wave is an excitation of the surface of the ocean.

This change of the Higgs field value would be just a phase transition similar to what happens when a liquid starts to boil. Bubbles form and eventually, the liquid evaporates and disappears. Since the value of the Higgs field has a direct impact on the mass of quarks and electrons, it also determines the size of atoms. If the field value changes sufficiently, the atoms equilibrium is at risk and all matter could collapse.

What is puzzling Gian Giudice the most is why are these parameters such as to put us right on the edge between the meta-stable and stable region. Why has Nature chosen such unlikely values out of all possibilities? Could it be that all values are possible and we simply happen to live in a Universe having these specific ones? This would then mean there would be zillions of other Universes out there, each one having its own set of parameters, some of them being completely unstable and undergoing rapid phase transitions, others simply never being born. Our Universe would be part of a multiverse.

Much food for thoughts! The easiest way out is still for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to lead to the discoveries of new particles, revealing that the Standard Model does not provide the full picture. This in turn would mean all these calculations would just be good for the garbage, as Gian Giudice is the first to point out laughingly.

Pauline Gagnon

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14 Responses to “Doomed Universe?”

  1. Gilbert says:

    We have recently found a rotating black hole. A rotating black hole could be used to travel back in time (by going around it like we would on a cylinder spinning in space). Of course, if we travel back we cannot travel before the black hole formation. By doing jumps from black holes to black holes, you would be able to go far enough back in time.

    If the universe is doomed, either by this catastrophic collapse or death by entropy, this would be a solution for an advanced enough civilisation to go back in time and keep itself alive. That sounds more plausible than travelling across branes.

    Equations allow it. Finding a rotating black hole is indeed very interesting. With enough technology and civilization advancement, it would offer you an eternal universe even if it does collapse or die by heat entropy.

    • CERN says:

      Hello Gilbert,

      thank you for sharing your thoughts on this even though I personally feel much of your assumptions are based on speculations rather than facts. But first of all, let me stress again that no civilisation of ours will ever witness this tragic end of the Universe. If this happens at all (and that requires the Standard Model to hold through at all energy scales and forever) then it will take something like 10 exponent 100 years. In case you do not realise it, this is:
      10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 years from now. So no need to loose sleep over it. Of course, it is extremely interesting from a philosophical viewpoint.

      Cheers, Pauline

  2. Luis says:

    Creo que cualquier preocupación al respecto es irrelevante, para entonces seremos nuevamente polvo de alguna nueva estrella!

    • CERN says:

      Hello Luis,

      Google translate gives me this translation in English:
      ” I think any concern about it is irrelevant, for then we are again some new star dust! ”

      Of course, you are absolutely right, none of us or any other civilisation will be there to witness it any way. This is more a philosophical question than anything else. But scientists are always curious about Nature, wanting to understand how it all works. In that sense, this is as important as finding out where we are all coming from. It changes nothing except increases our knowledge. Otherwise, we would be like animals, just taking care of our most basic needs.

      The calculations showed this will not happen in any near future but nobody knew what it would reveal from the start. So in this sense, it was worth checking it out. If the answer had been 10000 years or even 1000 or less, your conclusion would probably have been different. Since the answer was not known a priori, it was stil interesting to do the calculations and see what came out. The value of the final answer was not the most important aspect of this exercise in my opinion.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Pauline

  3. Roman says:

    Thank you for your blog and particularly for the link to “All on the Higgs” article which I didn’t read before. These calculations/assumptions etc. are so mindblowing! Even following all this just from curiosity (like I do) is fascinating. I imagine what pleasure it is to really understand things on a high level like you scientists do. I often encounter people who have this mocking approach of “what point in all this Universe study”, “all this is just a useless crap with no practical meaning”, etc. Actually I feel sorry for such people who don’t even attempt to think or look beyond their daily routine.

    • CERN says:

      Hello Roman,

      indeed this was a fun piece to write although being an experimentalist, I have to admit that many details of the calculations were lost on me. If you ever need entertainment, have a look at the authors’ original paper. This is also mind blowing! I agree with you to say that this is one privilege of the human species to be able to ponder over such issues. Glad you enjoyed the old blog on the nature of the Higgs boson and its role.

      Cheers, Pauline

    • Roger says:

      Roman, Like me you may find an alleged conversation between Michael Faraday and British Prime Minister Gladstone amusing and an appropriate response to those who ask “So what is the practical use of all of this??” After touring Faraday’s laboratory, Gladstone gazed at the mess of magnets and wiring and voiced the same questioning doubt. Being a reserved and somewhat shy individual, Faraday is said to have looked at the floor and answered almost inaudably, “I don’t know.”

  4. Deandre says:

    Hi,

    Do the other conserved fields also exist at the meta-stable state? If so is there a time frame for them shifting towards an unstable (in our concept of a favorable universe)?

    • CERN says:

      Hello,

      Yes, all other fields exist in the Higgs metastable state. But there is no time frame for a shift for these fields since they are all in a stable configuration. Only the Higgs field is metastable. So this appears to be a property of the Higgs field only.

      I hope it helps, Pauline

  5. Henri says:

    I guess this is another ‘fine tuning’ problem and undiscovered physics may explain why the Higgs mass and the top quark mass have the current values. Does the result guarantee a cyclic universe? How much would the Higgs field value change in a transition?

    • CERN says:

      Hello Henri,

      I do not think it is a fine tuning-problem. I do not think either that this would mean a cyclic universe. The time constant is so long anyway, it is hard to care… Gian Giudice told me the Higgs field constant would have to change substantially. a minor change would not do it. But I cannot be more precise.

      Cheers, Pauline

  6. Adam says:

    Am I missing something, or is this a May 2012 paper dealing with data from before the big July press conference?

    Actually, that plot’s kind of a mystery. Are those 1/2/3 sigma regions supposed to be from Tevatron and LHC data? Because a more recent paper (cites this one, and the July 4 data) shows a significantly larger 2 sigma (95%) region:

    http://pubdb.desy.de/fulltext/getfulltext.php?uid=23383-59716

    Wouldn’t we expect to see that region shrink dramatically with the new information?

    • CERN says:

      Hello Adam,

      indeed, I think you are confusing different papers. This was came out very recently (see the link to the paper in my blog). It uses data from the LHC and Tevatron combined on the most probable values for the Higgs mass boson (assuming this is what we found last summer) and top quark.

      I hope this helps, Pauline

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