This Is How It All Ends - The Vacuum Metastability Event

This Is How It All Ends - The Vacuum Metastability Event

Are we living in a universe that could suddenly explode and disappear without warning? Well, some scientists seem to think so, and have drawn up a doomsday theory that could boggle the minds of even the greatest science fiction writers. Researchers have drawn up a plausible end of the universe theory that has a 50/50 chance of being correct, and it hinges on this question: What if our universe existed within another universe that had a more powerful vacuum than ours? What if we were sucked into that other world due to some random event? What if all we’ve ever known and loved is suddenly blown to pieces at the speed of light? Sounds whacky but that’s just what scientists have proposed – and they seem convinced.  

In order to properly understand what a vacuum metastability event is, we need to consider the Higgs field theory that permeates our universe. Peter Ware Higgs (born in 1929) was a British theoretical physicist, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on the mass of subatomic particles. Higgs’ field, like an electric field, varies in strength based on its potential. And the Higgs potential determines whether the universe is in either a true vacuum or a false vacuum. A true vacuum can be considered as a stable, low energy state held tightly, whereas a false vacuum would mean that the entire universe sits within a larger, more unpredictable environment. One small push, tap, or interference can send it spinning into that larger vacuum, meaning all our laws of science would disappear within the blink of an eye. If we think of our universe as a goldfish bowl, all animal and human life are like the fish and the stone bridge and the weeds inside that bowl. What would happen if somebody, something, or some force interfered with that fish bowl? Pushed it off the shelf for example? A universe in a false vacuum like Higgs’ theory is called metastable, because although it isn’t actively spinning and decaying, it isn’t exactly stable either. Like the goldfish bowl, it has its own internal physical forces keeping it stable, but another force could rock that goldfish bowl from its safe resting place and cause the entire world to perish. So if we are indeed living in a metastable universe, should we be worried?

Yes, because if we were pulled into the true vacuum, then all life as we know it would cease to exist. That means no more planets, no more earth, no more trees, no more puppy dogs, no more primetime television, and no more you and me. The walls of the true vacuum would expand in all directions at the speed of light, so you wouldn’t see it coming, as you’d probably be incinerated by the waves of energy ploughing right through you. The world and the universe would be simply sucked into another existence where it would be like fish out of a bowl. It would be all over in a flash. The vacuum metastability event would of course be catastrophic, but don’t panic too much, yet. The vacuum event is just one of a number of potential catastrophes scientists have cooked up for us in the past. There’s the Big Rip - a cosmological model where the matter of the universe, from the stars and galaxies, to atoms and space-time itself, is progressively torn apart by the expansion of the universe. This could be likened to the water pressure in our goldfish bowl expanding to such a point, the mass breaks the glass. Then there’s the Heat Death of the Universe, a theory that predicts an expansion of a cold and empty universe, and The Big Crunch, the reversal of cosmic expansion. All these theories predict the end of the universe, and of course scientists and philosophers have predicted doomsday throughout history. Even Sir Isaac Newton himself predicted the end of the world. As well as being a superstar scientist, he also had a belief in the occult and predicted the end of the world as 2060, before amending his prediction to 2016. Nostradamus predicted the world to end in 3797, and coming from a fellow who supposedly predicted the French revolution, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and September 11, 2001, he may have been onto something.     

But just what are the chances that the metastable vacuum event will ever happen? Well, Dr. Frank Heile who holds a PHD in Physics from Stanford University tells us that “the chances are either “0 or 1. If the vacuum of our universe is not metastable, then the chances are 0. On the other hand, if our universe is metastable, then the chances are 1. The vacuum will decay from our current vacuum to a more stable vacuum – it will happen eventually, but maybe not for billions of years. So it’s a fifty-fifty chance that the vacuum metastable event could happen, and a handful of science fiction writers have jumped on the vacuum theory bandwagon. The event has been used as a plot device in stories by Geoffrey A. Landis and Stephen Baxter, and was used in the 2015 young adult novel Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds. It is one of the most interesting theories, not to mention terrifying bedtime stories, as it asks the big question that we all want to know the answer to -is our universe all that is out there? Or is there more that we just don’t know about?

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