Physicists announced last week that the Higgs Boson is light enough to make the Universe unstable, and predicted its catastrophic demise for several billion years from today.
Last summer, scientists finally found the long awaited Higgs Boson, a particle that, according to theoretical physics, gives all elementary particles mass. Without the Higgs, these particles would remain massless, and our bodies, blankets, cups of tea, dogs, and universe wouldn’t exist.
The Higgs particle is part of an equation that predicts the stability of the Universe, and now that we’ve found it, physicists can finally make calculations with that formula. For the Universe to maintain stability long term, the Higgs should weigh about 129 GEV. What they’re finding is that the Higgs is a bit on the light side, capping out at 126 GEV, and when that light weight is plugged into the equation---explosive universal demise ensues.
We think of a “vacuum” as being empty, but the trippy thing about space is that even vacuums have matter in them. The vacuum of space is filled with the Higgs field, which interacts with elementary particles, and gives rise to the Higgs particle. The vacuum of space can be in different energy states, but like all of nature, it is inclined towards the lowest energy state, where it will be the most stable. What we don’t know is which energy state our universe is in: is it high or low? What will it look like if it goes to a lower energy state?
Michael Tuts, a Columbia University professor of physics, described the phenomenon on Huffington Post Live as being like living in a valley up in the mountains---it can feel like you’re the lowest spot around, but it might be lower to be down at the beach. Maybe you can make a tunnel to the beach without having to climb the hills and descend into the valleys in between, in which case you and your universe can survive…or maybe you can’t get to a lower state that way...
One scenario for how the Universe might get to its desired low energy state is that a little bubble of an alternate universe will appear somewhere, and it will be in that desirable low energy state that our Universe wants to get to. The bubble will spread out and devour our Universe from within at the speed of light. But don’t worry; it won’t happen for a billion years. And we won’t feel it when it does.
But slightly changing any of the parameters in the calculation for the end of the universe changes the outcome: researchers are finding that the Higgs particle decays into photons more often than expected, which somehow implies we might find particles from the theory of supersymmetry. That theory argues that all ordinary particles have heavier “superpartners.” If the Higgs has a heavier superpartner, it might balance the scales and save us from destruction.
Speaking of cliffhangers, the next season of the Large Hadron Collider won’t kick up for two more years, as it’s closing for repairs and maintenance. When it does get up and running again, however, expect a wild ride, as it’ll be running at higher energy levels, affording more precise calculations. Hang on to your seats to know your universe’s fate!
"I think we should be buoyed by the fact that it's amazing what we're able to understand here in this random time in the middle of nowhere in the universe." - theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss