on the End of the Universe

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.  – Douglas Adams

There’s a new story going around about Stephen Hawking, claiming (in most accounts) that the Higgs Boson could destroy the entire universe.

But I’m not worried about this.  Crazy things done in particle accelerators don’t bother me because the universe is full of supernovae chucking around amounts of energy we can barely dream of. Sure, we control what happens in a particle accelerator… but that’s mostly so we can observe it.  You can pretty safely assume any collision, even a 126 GeV one, that CAN happen, WILL happen somewhere in an exploding star.  And for a very conservative estimate, let’s say there are a trillion galaxies out there, and each one has a supernova every 100 years (this is conservative because star formation has slowed down massively over the last couple billion years, so there aren’t as many supernova progenitors being made and detonated these days).  That means over the 13.7 billion year lifetime of the universe thus far, there have been 1×10^12 * 1.37×10^8 supernovae.  Whatever this universe-ending cataclysm is, apparently 10^20 supernovae haven’t managed to set it off, so this cataclysm must a.) require higher energies than a supernova can produce (much less a particle accelerator on Earth), b.) be incredibly rare, or c.) be impossible, and we just don’t know the correct physics yet.

Seriously, it’s a relatively common trope in science fiction to have some event or device that will “destroy the universe!” which, while definitely epic (until you’ve threatened it three or four times, such as in Doctor Who*), is a little silly.  If the Universe itself were that easy to destroy, it would most likely have already done so.  It’s kind of like warnings about destroying the Earth – are we going to literally crack it like an egg? No, but we can make it uninhabitable and unrecognizable.

The actual story, at least as reported here, is a little more detailed.  And it’s not exactly the frightening thing it’s made out to be.  It is, apparently, the same thing that was reported back when the Higgs Boson was originally discovered, and stems from the mass-energy of the Higgs Boson, rather than some supposed action of the boson itself.  To sum up what’s actually going on, as I understand it – I am not a particle physicist, so take this with a grain of salt – the Higgs boson was found with a mass-energy of 126 GeV, which means the equations and interactions of the standard model of particle physics add up to a barely-stable universe, like a ball balanced on the back of a chair.  That means if something upsets the balance (somehow?), the universe would reconfigure itself into something more stable, with different laws of physics and different universal constants (I’m going off of this article here, which suggests masses will get more massive, and there are probably other changes implied).  There would still be a universe, but it probably wouldn’t resemble anything we recognize.  It doesn’t take much change in fundamental constants before fusion in stars is drastically easier or more difficult, or different elements are radioactive.  Anyway, to categorize this: We’re talking (b) incredibly rare – the article I linked to says it may take 10^100 years, at which point there may not be any protons (suspected half-life 10^25 years) around to care, and/or (c) impossible (there’s another potential theory called Supersymmetry that apparently doesn’t have this unstable-universe problem).

Ironically, this does seem broadly similar to the Douglas Adams quote above – there actually is a means by which the Universe could be suddenly replaced with something incomprehensible.  Adams was brilliant – although not a physicist, he clearly hung out with them and understood what they were talking about.  There are all manner of shadows of actual physics lampooned in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – the above quote, the Infinite Improbability Drive (and its infinite number of monkeys with their script for Hamlet), the Total Perspective Vortex, the “Whole Sort of General Mish-Mash”, and so on…I would be remiss for ignoring Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9 as the same sort of all-converting thing as the vacuum bubble that would effectively rewrite the universe.

* The Time Monster, Logopolis, Terminus, Arc of Infinity, The End of Time, The Pandoricum Opens/The Big Bang, The Wedding of River Song… and I’m probably missing a few others…

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