Dr Tommi Markkanen, an expert on the False Vacuum has kindly answered these questions in an email interview:

1. Does a false vacuum decay due to quantum tunneling have a realistic chance happening in my lifetime or already be on its way?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’. I’m assuming the question is referring specifically to the Standard Model of particle physics for which the likelihood of such an event can be reliably estimated as all input parameters are known to high accuracy. The probability of vacuum decay as predicted by the Standard Model is so mindbogglingly small that in every practical sense there is no chance of this happening.

[The Standard Model is our best understanding of particle physics to date - Tommi is saying that in this understanding in every practical sense there is no chance of it happening]

2. Could changes in the measurements of the higgs or top quark or any other change in the data mean there is a realistic chance of a false vacuum decay due to quantum tunneling?

Again, the answer is a clear ‘no’. A crucial point here is that we already have a very robust constraint in that the Universe has not decayed during its quite long and tumultuous past. If it were to turn out that for example the top quark had a much higher mass than the current estimation, which would imply a higher probability of vacuum decay, this would not mean that we should expect vacuum decay to be imminent. Rather, it would signal a failure of the Standard Model in explaining observations: the decay probability should be less than once every 13 800 000 000 years simply because the Universe has successfully survived at least that long. This is the way in which such predictions are made use of in particle physics and the reason why this one has attracted so much interest: it is a new way of working out which theories are wrong. Physics, after all, is far from being complete.

[If we found that the top quark, say, had a much higher mass than expected - we wouldn’t conclude that a vacuum decay is about to happen. Rather - because our universe is so long lived - we’d conclude that the Standard Model failed and we need a new theory, This has become a new way of working out which of our theories are wrong]

3. Is there anything to cause a false vacuum decay like black holes, cosmic strings or any other source of energy?

Related to the previous question, there cannot be anything that significantly exacerbates a possible vacuum collapse. If there was, the decay should have already taken place and we would not be here. This is in fact very much connected to what I myself along with my collaborators have been investigating for quite some time now, which might help to explain the point I’m making.

In the very early Universe cosmic inflation, a period of extremely rapid expansion, is believed to have occurred. The precise details of how this happened are not yet known as it is not known what the fundamental or ‘final’ theory of particle physics is. However, for some theories a vacuum decay does indeed easily get triggered when inflation is taking place. This would cause the Universe to decay almost immediately after it was born. Since this clearly has not happened, for these theories we can then say that they are ‘ruled out’ or simply put, incorrect.

[No, nothing can make a vacuum collapse a realistic possibility - because it would mean that the decay has already happened and we wouldn’t be here.

Background info: this period of extremely rapid expansion is described here along with the evidence that it happened: What is the inflation theory? The precise details of how this happened are not yet known, with many theories about it.

For example, with some theories the vacuum decay gets easily triggered in the very early universe in the first fraction of a second immediately after it is born Since this clearly hasn’t happened, we conclude that those theories are incorrect.]

4. Should I worry about the Universe ending any other way in my lifetime?

The nice thing here is that everything, I mean all known or unknown possibilities, are heavily constrained by the same already twice invoked argument: the Universe seems to be a very long-lived beast. There is no reason to think anything cataclysmic will happen this millennium, since nothing of the sort has happened on any of the over thirteen million millennia prior. Our cosmic epoch is not in any way special. It is actually rather boring if one compares it to the very early Universe with an extreme temperature and pressure. The cosmos will keep on going just like it has done for the previous many, many millennia.

[The cosmos is a long lived beast by the same argument as before. Our millennium is not in any way special - it’s actually rather boring - compared to early in the universe when things changed very quickly over very short periods of time. There is no reason to think this millennium will be any different from the past many many millennia]

Conclusion - summary of what Tommi said

The false vacuum decay is of absolutely no concern. The prediction from the standard model means that in every practical sense there is no chance of this happening.

The cosmos is a long lived beast. Our millennium is not in any way special and the cosmos will keep going as it has done for the previous many many millennia. This is the situation no matter what future discoveries we make.

You may also be interested in some analogies I used to explain why this is of absolutely no concern such as the Space Cows analogy and 24 colliding planes in the next second. Dr Tommi Markkanen gave this endorsement to my analogies:

For anyone concerned about a possible vacuum instability affecting us now or in the future, please read this post carefully. I think it does a fantastic job in explaining why it is absolutely of no concern."

It's here:

An expert answers your questions about false vacuum decay

Image from this conference: a Higgs cosmology | Royal Society

Image shows: Higgs candidate event superimposed on a Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the Abell 520 cluster

Credits: candidate event is from the CMS experiment (image credit: CERN; CMS; T. McCauley and L. Taylor) Abell 520 cluster (image credit: NASA; ESA; CFHT; CXO; M.J. Jee, University of California, Davis, and A. Mahdavi, San Francisco State University)

Dr Tommi Markkanen is a cosmologist who has been working on the Higgs vacuum metastability for most of his career, author of many publications on the topic and lead author of this review: Cosmological Aspects of Higgs Vacuum Metastability

He is is supported by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant (agreement No. 786564.)

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