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If Higgs Boson Calculations Are Right, A Catastrophic 'Bubble' Could End Universe

An undated handout graphic distributed on July 4, 2012 by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva shows a representation of traces of traces of a proton-proton collision measured in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience in the search for the Higgs boson.
AFP/Getty Images
An undated handout graphic distributed on July 4, 2012 by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva shows a representation of traces of traces of a proton-proton collision measured in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience in the search for the Higgs boson.

For a universe so old and so illustrious, the end may be boring and lightning quick: According to one Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory theoretician, if what we know about the Higgs boson subatomic particle is true, the universe may come to an end when another universe slurps us up at light speed.

"If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news," Joseph Lykken said at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on Monday. "It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out. This has to do with the Higgs energy field itself."

Here's how he explained his theory to NBC News' Cosmic Log:

"He said the parameters for our universe, including the Higgs mass value as well as the mass of another subatomic particle known as the top quark, suggest that we're just at the edge of stability, in a 'metastable' state. Physicists have been contemplating such a possibility for more than 30 years. Back in 1982, physicists Michael Turner and Frank Wilczek wrote in Nature that "without warning, a bubble of true vacuum could nucleate somewhere in the universe and move outwards at the speed of light, and before we realized what swept by us our protons would decay away."

"Lykken put it slightly differently: 'The universe wants to be in a different state, so eventually to realize that, a little bubble of what you might think of as an alternate universe will appear somewhere, and it will spread out and destroy us.'"

According to Discovery News, Lykken said if this happens, it'll happen at light speed, which means if anyone is around to witness it — our solar system will be long gone — they'll be gone before they realize it.

Now, all of these calculations use what we know about a subatomic particle discovered by CERN back in July, which scientists said bears the hallmarks of the Higgs boson. As we've explained before, scientists believe the Higgs is the thing that gives other subatomic particles their mass.

We won't know more about the Higgs for a while. The New Scientist reports that Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs-like particle was discovered, has gone into a two-year hiatus.

Scientists will make tweaks to the atom-smashing machine and it will reach peak energy in 2015.

Update at 6:24 p.m. ET. At Any Moment!

Of course, this gets weirder. Two of our very smart readers (j m and Sean McElroy) point out that our universe is billions of light years big.

"You wouldn't want to be standing next to a 'bubble of true vacuum,' that would be immediately fatal, but if it's far enough away, you'd have time to, well, fall prey to any of the myriad other types of death," Sean writes.

We asked Fermi Lab's Lykken about this observation. He said it was correct.

"The bubble forms through an unlikely quantum fluctuation, at a random time and place," Lykken tells us. "So in principle it could happen tomorrow, but then most likely in a very distant galaxy, so we are still safe for billions of years before it gets to us."

Our friend Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, explained back in January that this is the rub with this theory. If true, we should be able to "see" a "neighboring" universe. We won't be able to see the destruction a collision would bring because both the light (image) of it and the destruction itself are moving at light speed.

So, could we see a precursor of sorts? Marcelo says that some scientists are working on that. He wrote:

"Just as with soap bubbles that vibrate when they collide with one another without popping [emphasis ours], if another universe collided with ours in the distant past, the radiation inside our universe would have vibrated in response to the perturbations caused by the collision. These perturbations would be registered in the cosmic radiation and could, in principle, be observed. Matthew Kleban from New York University and his collaborators, and Anthony Aguirre from the University of California at Santa Cruz and his have been studying what kinds of signals would be left over from these dramatic events. Kleban found a unique signature, concentric rings where the radiation temperature would show a characteristic fluctuation. On top of the rings the radiation itself would be polarized, that is, it would oscillate in tandem in a specific direction of the sky. At least for now, no telltale rings have been found in the cosmic radiation, although the European satellite Planck promises to deliver more accurate polarization data that may shed light on the issue."

Phew! Perhaps, all of this can be summed up by a scene from Annie Hall, when a young Alvy discovers the universe is expanding and he is paralyzed.

Alvy's mom says "You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

Alvy's doctor says: "It won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here!"

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.