This is an article in New Scientist that’s being shared in social media which says it's a new caclulation of the future of the Universe according to the theory of false vacuum. It’s scaring many people because when you read it as far as it goes, before you have to pay to read, it doesn’t give a timeline, so they think it could happen any moment. Also, because it says “there’s a chance” that it has already collapsed in a distant corner of the cosmos. I'm writing this as part of a series of posts to help people scared of false or exaggerated doomsdays, which often get to the top of Google, Apple News and Facebook trending and are read by many people who have no idea how to take them including children as young as 14 and sometimes much younger. They can get very scared about these stories, have panic attacks and are sometimes suicidal because they can't bear the fear.
First, the timescale is trillions upon trillions of years into the future, many times over. A vast timescale hard for most to comprehend..
As for the "chance" that it's already collapsed, mathematicians and physicists have a strange way of thinking about chance and probability compared to most people. They can work out a "chance" for anything including a potato suddenly jumping off a supermarket shelf and hitting you
Do you think there's a "chance" that the minute you open your eyes tomorrow morning your house will be hit by three simultaneous planes on different flights, and in the same minute you are hit by three independent meteorites coming from different directions at the same time, and in the same minute hit by two lightning strikes? That's roughly equivalent to what they mean by "there's a chance". It's frankly impossible (in non mathematical language). In addition many physicists think that the theory is probably false and will lead to new physics to explain why it can't happen.
Here is the preview:
“The Higgs boson could destroy the universe. There’s a chance this particle has collapsed in a distant corner of the cosmos, producing a bubble of expanding vacuum energy that could envelop us all.
The end of time and space as we know it is predicted by the standard model of particle physics, a theoretical framework describing all known particles and forces. Playing out these interactions to their logical end, researchers have found the most precise estimate of the lifetime of our universe ever made. The …”
If you share it in social media the preview says the Higgs boson could destroy the universe in 10139 years, an oddly specific sounding number of years:
When you click through the preview doesn’t give any time period so many are assuming it will end in a little over 10,000 years.
Actually the figure is 10139 years, ten to the power 139, or 1 followed by 139 zeroes.
Or 10 million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years
(with eleven “trillion”s)
That’s a vast timescale almost impossible to comprehend.
This is the paper itself:
"We produce the first complete calculation of the lifetime of our universe: 10139 years. With 95% confidence, we expect our universe to last more than 1058 years. The uncertainty is part experimental uncertainty on the top quark mass and on as and part theory uncertainty from electroweak threshold corrections" [1707.08124] Scale Invariant Instantons and the Complete Lifetime of the Standard Model
So you might worry then, since they have only 95% confidence that it lasts 1058 years, i.e. there’s a 5% chance it ends today? No, that 5% is for their uncertainty about whether it lasts more than
10 million trillion trillion trillion trillion years.
IS THERE REALLY A "CHANCE" IT HAS HAPPENED ALREADY?
They do suggest that idea by talking about
“There’s a chance this particle has collapsed in a distant corner of the cosmos”
But mathematicians and physicists have a strange way of thinking about “chance” at least by the way most people think about this topic.
Would you say that there’s a “chance” that a potato in the supermarket shelf will jump off it and hit you in the head?
Well - ask a physicist and he can work out a number which is the “probability” of this happening. A potato is made up of atoms and molecules and they are all jiggling because of it’s warmth - anything unless it is at absolute zero is like that. And the direction of the jiggles is random. Because it’s made of a staggeringly vast number of molecules, then the random motions all cancel out and it just sits still on the shelf. But if they all happened to jiggle in the same way in your direction then theoretically yes, it would jump off the shelf and hit you.
A physicist can work out numbers for anything. Even if it is as absurd as a potato jumping off the shelf like that. He or she can work out a number for that too.
If you ask most people if it could happen - well the answer is just no. We aren’t used to working with numbers in this way - unless you train as a mathematician then even just saying it is “unlikely” doesn’t come anywhere near to explaining it properly. I think for most people it is more accurate to say that it is just impossible for a potato to do that. It’s like - it’s far closer to “impossible” than to most people’s idea of “unlikely”.
Basically despite all the calculations a physicist may do - a potato can’t actually jump up in the air - you don’t need to take steps to protect yourself from jumping potatoes :).
You don’t need to worry that one of these potatoes will jump in the air and hit you in the phase because of random jostling of its molecules. Even if you asked a physicist about the chance of a jumping potato - he or she would give you a 1 in something type chance of it happening. They can do that for the most improbable and frankly impossible things, they can still work out numbers for them.
The relevant part for us if you are worrying about it happening now, is their equation 6.28 on page 49
They work out the probability that we would have encountered a vacuum bubble already. It is really tiny. 1 in somewhere between 10107 and 10718. That is for the entire age of the universe to date, or 13.8 billion years
What they did for their equation 6.28- is to look at the past light cone going back to the Big bang and they treated that entire volume as like the present universe. (Presumably they universe has not varied enough in properties over most of that time to be something to consider - that is - except in the very early first fraction of a second when it is hard to see how it survived a false vacuum decay, more on that later).
I am only presenting a summary of their conclusions, and the calculations themselves are way beyond me and only accessible to experts in this topic area.
ANALOGY OF MANY SIMULTANEOUS IMPROBABILITIES
This analogy may help.
It's not like a risk of being hit by lightning. That’s far too likely to be a good analogy. We simply don't have any ordinary things we worry about that are anything like as unlikely.
Do you think that when you wake up tomorrow morning that in the very minute you open your eyes your house will be hit by three different planes on separate flights, you will be hit by three separate meteorites that hit you, and you will also be hit by a lightning strike too? All in that one minute, all happening to you, nobody else, and all tomorrow, and no other day or minute?
Calculation to show this is roughly equivalent:
- plane crashing into house 1 in 20 million What are the chances of a plane crashing into your home?
- Lightning Strike Probabilities 1 : 280,000
- meteorite 1 in 1.6 million What Are the Odds a Meteorite Could Kill You?
(20 million * 365*100*24*60)^3 * (280,000*365*100*24*60) *(1.6 million *365*100*24*60)^3 = 10^100 (slightly over)
(actually we aren't quite there, need another 10 to the power 7- and I'm assuming an average lifetime of 100 years for those risks, that 100 should probably be more like 80 - so to make it exactly equivalent we'd need to add another 1 in 330 lifetime risk happening in the same minute).
That is what it would be like for the false vacuum to happen some time in the last 13.8 billion years age of the universe. Like all those things happening tomorrow in the very minute you open your eyes.
If you want to work out what it would be like for it to happen, say, in the next 100 million years, rather than the next 13.8 billion years, then make it the same analogy but with two simultaneous lightning strikes.
If you take the higher number in their range of values (10107 and 10718) you need to have 21 planes and 21 meteorites hitting simultaneously in that same minute along with seven or eight lightning strikes too.
If you train as a physicist or mathematician you learn how to work out chances for anything. So long as it is physically possible, however unlikely and most people would say flat out impossible, then you can work out a number for it. So, you could work out a number for the “chance” of all those things happening in the same minute.
I think you can be reasonably confident you are not going to have two simultaneous lightning strikes, three separate meteorites and three separate planes all hitting your house all in the same minute when you open your eyes tomorrow morning? In the same way, I think we can be pretty confident in saying that's not going to happen to you? Even though you can work out a number to say what the chance is and it will be a definite number and not zero.
It is impossible (speaking in non mathematical language).
It’s like that.
WHAT ABOUT RUTH GREGORY'S COMMENT REPORTED IN METRO MAGAZINE?
Short summary: the article is here So is the universe going to end? and it says that Ruth Gregory thinks it could lead to it happening sooner, but “sooner” here means some time after 1067 years from now, or a ten million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years. It makes no difference to the calculations about it happening right now.
Her paper is here but very techy. What is clear from it is that her processes only become significant for really tiny black holes a few thousand or million or billion times the mass of a proton. The article would take careful reading to find out what the mass is exactly but I think definitely e.g. one gram would be far too massive to make a significant difference to the possibility of a false vacuum collapse, so she is talking there about really tiny black holes towards the end of their life. It's a process she sees as going on in parallel with Hawking radiation.
Assuming there are no mini black holes now (or else something stabilizes the Higgs particle in their presence) then presumably she is thinking of the far distant future when our large stellar sized black holes eventually decay away andn form mini black holes.
If so that's very long into the future also, It can't be ordinary gravity due to stars or galaxies or normal black holes and even less so not giant black holes at the center of a galaxy - it has to be the tiny concentrated black hole of a mini black hole for her paper to work.
The thing is her mini blackholes in her theory were too good at collapsing the universe so just by the observation that we are here, she had to assume either that there aren't any - or else something stabilizes the Higgs againts them collapsing.
Either way we are okay
The idea of mini black holes in the present are a way out idea. If there were lots of them around we'd see stars vanishing as great big things mini black holes would fall into - and we don't, so I think most astronomers would say there probably aren't any primordial mini black holes. And if there were any and her theory was correct it's really hard to see how the universe could have avoided a false vacuum decay by now.
So that means her idea would only come into play when the current black holes, the smallest of which are the size of stars, eventually evaporate away into mini black holes and then disappear completley.
Ethan Siegel wrote
"It would take a whopping ~1067 years for a black hole the mass of the Sun to evaporate, and around ~10100 years for the largest black holes in the Universe. That may be far longer than the age of the Universe, but it’s still not forever. Although black holes may live longer than any other object known in the Universe, even they have their limits, and now you know how come!"
THE THEORY IS PROBABLY FALSE
There are lots of crazy sounding ideas put out by astrophysicists and most of them are likely to be not just crazy sounding but actually false. Indeed they can’t all be right or even most of them because they contradict each other.
This is one of those ideas and it is a particularly puzzling one to be true because it’s hard to see how our universe could exist at all if it is true.
That’s because astronomers think that long ago the entire visible universe was packed into a tiny space the size of the charge radius of a proton - nucleus of hydrogen atom and before that packed into an even smaller space. How could it have avoided that, in such extreme conditions, if it was in a false vacuum state?
A bit more background. The vacuum in our universe might seem to be in its lowest possible energy state, but theory is that it is actually metastable - that it could collapse to an even lower energy state if nudged in the right way.
This shows the idea, how if somehow we could be nudged over that hump in the Higgs potential we might fall down the other side into another state which would have different laws of physics from the ones we enjoy now. We would not survive that transition. It might go to another stable state or just fall endlessly changing all the way with no final state.
If the only other available minimum is higher than our current one then ours is a stable state and we don’t need to worry about a nudge sending our universe into another state. But if it is a lower level than ours then in principle we could be nudged over the hill as it were into that lower state so then our current state is metastable.
It’s obviously a very unlikely thing to happen because our Universe has stayed as it is for nearly fourteen billion years with nothing like this happening. But is it at all possible?
So the thing is that the stability depends on the mass of the Higgs boson. And when they found it, with the LHC, they calculated that our universe might be completely stable, or it might be that it is metastable with this lower energy state available. It is just on the edge, according to standard particle physics.
So that got physicists rethinking this question - if our universe is metastable then just possibly there may be some way it could collapse into a lower energy state. It’s a rather academic question given the vast timescale on which it would happen. So that’s where this calculation comes in.
Because this idea of a universe in a false vacuum state seems unlikely, the idea is used sometimes as a motivation for new physics. In particular
- If there is dark matter that has mass like ordinary matter through the Higgs field it can't happen.
- If supersymmetry is correct it can't happen.
- If we have more than one Higgs boson it can't happen.
Here is Professor John Ellis talking about it:
He is saying he thinks this means that we need new physics, because otherwise why didn't the universe get out of the false vacuum in the early universe when it was much hotter? He thinks that the new physics is supersymmetry and that we have a chance to find this with the next run of the LHC. In other words he thinks that curve graph is wrong.
In answer to a question from the audience, he says that if it is true that we are in this false vacuum, it means that nearly all the vast cosmos has to be in a true vacuum and we are a tiny patch of false vacuum because in the very early stages of the Big Bang it's almost impossible not to collapse into a true vacuum. If that was true we'd be surrounded by true vacuum in all directions since the universe nowadays is thought to be infinite as far as we can tell, extend way way beyond the tiny patch we can see, expanded from a Big Bang that itself was also infinite (quite a tricky idea to get your mind around but that's the way they think about it at present - if the universe is flat as it seems to be, then it needs to have been infinite from the beginning, or if nearly flat, then very large)..
So in that sense yes we would be surrounded by true vacuums all expanding towards us. But that wouldn't change much as far as we are concerned. Although the true vacuum expands at the speed of light and although nothing can travel faster than light within space, so you'd think nothing could escape it - yet - space itself can expand faster than light and we can see galaxies that are disappearing beyond the event horizon of our observible galaxy meaning that even at the speed of light we could not reach them now.
So in the same way then if we are surrounded by true vacuum, even traveling at the speed of light towards us, it can never get to us. So that doesn't change the calculation.
So - but John Ellis doesn't find that scenario of us living in a tiny patch of false vacuum surrounded by a vast infinite universe of nearly all true vacuum as very plausible. And many astrophysicists would agree.
So, some astrophysicists like him say the most natural way to understand this is that the theory has to be false and therefore there must be new science to discover. That’s no surprise as everyone agrees that our current understanding of the universe is incomplete with many things yet to discover.
TO FIND OUT MORE
Some of you may find this quote helpful:
“So if we follow our understanding of the Standard Model, combined with our best measurements, it appears that we live in a metastable universe that could one day disappear without warning. You can be forgiven if you take that pronouncement as a reason to indulge in some sort of rare treat tonight. But before you splurge too much, take heed of a few words of caution. Using the same Standard Model we used to figure out whether the cosmos is metastable, we can predict how long it is likely to take for quantum mechanics to let the universe slip from the metastable valley to the stable one, and it will take trillions of years. Mankind has only existed for about 100,000 years, and the sun will grow to a red giant and incinerate the Earth in about five billion years. Since we're talking about the universe existing as a metastable state for trillions of years, maybe overindulging tonight might be a bad idea.”
from: Fermilab Today - it’s a good article to read, excellent explanation of what metastable means.
And this BBC news story explains it quite well for ordinary folk Cosmos may be 'inherently unstable' - BBC News
Also this one by Pauline Gagnon is good: Quantum Diaries
Also on this latest paper:
Gizmodo The Universe Is Not in Danger of Ending From a Higgs Boson Vacuum Bubble - Good to see someone else explaining the false vacuum collapse properly to the general public :).
For more debunks like this see the: List of the articles in my Debunking Doomsday blog to date
If you need help - comment on any of these posts or message me on Facebook or Quora.
Also our Facebook group Doomsday Debunked has been set up to help anyone who is scared by these fake doomsdays.