How vacuum decay can destroy the universe

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How vacuum decay can destroy the universe
How vacuum decay can destroy the universe

It is possible that the Higgs boson is associated with a very unusual scenario of the end of the world - lightning fast, irreversible and inevitable.


Every minute of our existence is accompanied by one sad fact: everything will come to an end someday. And the universe is no exception. According to the modern understanding of physics, there are several guesses about what could happen in the distant hopeless future. The universe can cool down to such an extent that nothing can survive in it, or it suddenly collapses. However, none of these hypothetical ends of everything is as mind-blowing as the decay of a vacuum.

In this eerie scenario, a bubble must appear somewhere in the universe. The laws of physics inside him are fundamentally different from those that reign outside. The bubble expands at the speed of light, eventually absorbing the entire universe. Galaxies fly apart, atoms cannot hold their components, and particle interactions change at a fundamental level. Whatever form the universe takes afterwards, it will definitely become unsuitable for human life.

How can this be

To understand what the decay of a vacuum is, you first need to understand what a vacuum state is. Most people associate the word "vacuum" with open space and other areas in which there is no matter. However, outer space is not really empty. On the contrary, it contains fluctuating quantum fields that produce particles that are responsible for the fundamental laws of physics in the universe. When this space reaches its minimum energy level, it is said to be in a vacuum state. Nevertheless, these quantum fields, in spite of everything, continue to work, thus keeping the fabric of reality from destruction.

We know 17 particles that appear when quantum fields are disturbed - or, in other words, when a quantum field gains energy. One such particle is a photon, which we perceive as light and which is responsible for electromagnetic radiation like X-rays and microwave, among others. There are also quarks that collect into protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei. Other particles are particles of interactions - like strong and weak - that ultimately dictate how the universe works.


When the underlying quantum fields producing these particles are in their vacuum states, the universe is stable. Based on the definition, the vacuum state cannot lose energy, since if the opposite were true, the work of fundamental particles would also be different, which means that the Universe would stop working as it does now.

Most quantum fields seem to be in their quantum states, which means they are stable, and we are safe. However, it is extremely difficult to measure these things. Perhaps one quantum field has yet to reach its vacuum state: we are talking about the Higgs field.

How the Higgs field relates to vacuum decay

The Higgs field and the associated Higgs boson are responsible for the presence of mass in everything in the universe. That is why photons have no mass, and Z-bosons have very little mass - at least for a quantum particle. By itself, this field is important for the interaction of fundamental particles with each other.

Perhaps the Higgs field is "stuck" at a certain energy level. Imagine a ball rolling down a hill - all the other fields “rolled” to the bottom, but the Higgs field could get stuck in a small depression in the middle of it, which prevented it from reaching the bottom.

If the lowest possible energy available to the field is called the vacuum state, then this trough can be considered a false vacuum: it looks stable, but it actually has more energy than where the Higgs field "wants" to be. To understand why the Higgs field could get stuck, a lot of mathematics is needed, but for the purposes of this article, it is important for us to know: physicists believe that the Higgs field may still have somewhere to turn around before reaching a vacuum state.

The problem is that the universe depends on the properties of the Higgs field in its current state. What can push him out of this depression? This would most likely require an incredible amount of energy. But it can also happen due to a strange quantum phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. Since quantum particles behave in waves, there is a possibility that they can pass through the obstacle, rather than bypass it. This can be thought of as going through the trough that holds the Higgs field in place.


The consequences of the decay of the vacuum

If the Higgs field burst out of the false vacuum and descended to its present vacuum state, then the physical laws governing the Universe would simply collapse. If the delicate balance between quantum particles was upset, the Higgs field would burst out of the false vacuum, creating a domino effect throughout the universe called vacuum decay. It is in this case that the bubble of vacuum decay would spread throughout the entire Universe at the speed of light. When it passed through space, everything - matter, interactions of the Universe - would cease to work and exist in the form we are accustomed to.

And what will happen after that, it is impossible even to imagine. The laws of physics will become completely different and - more than likely - will make our existence impossible. Perhaps atoms can no longer be held in common structures, chemicals will enter into new, unknown reactions, and many other things will happen that we cannot imagine.

Fortunately, this theory is based on our current understanding of the universe, which, to put it mildly, is far from complete. We don't know for sure if the Higgs field is actually in a false vacuum, we only know that it is likely. Moreover, for the Higgs field to emerge from the false vacuum, it can take a very long time - much more than we will exist as a species. And if this event really happens, we will not be able to do anything to prevent it. As the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll noted, if this happens, we will not even notice, since everything will happen incredibly quickly. So, if the collapse of the vacuum is one of the possible scenarios for the end of the existence of everything, we just need to get used to this idea.

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