SALT LAKE CITY — The very fabric of the universe may be inherently unstable. So unstable, in fact, that the whole thing could get eaten at the speed of light by the expanding bubble of an alternate universe.
It all has to do with the mass of what may be the Higgs Boson and a huge elementary particle known as the top quark. The most accurate measurements of both, about 126 GeV for the Higgs and 173 GeV for the top quark, indicate some rather unsettling news.
"If you use all the physics that we know now, and we do what we think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news," said Joseph Lykken at the Feb. 18 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable. At some point, billions of years from now, it's all going to be wiped out."
If you think of the universe as one big physical system, you can also think of it as "wanting" to be in a ground state, that is, the state of absolute minimum energy. Physicists call this the vacuum. Depending on the mass of these two particles, the physical universe can be either stable, unstable or metastable, which is somewhere in between both.
"The mass of the Higgs is related to how stable the vacuum is," Christopher Hill, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, told LiveScience. "It's right along the critical line. That could either be a cosmic coincidence, or it could be that there's some physics that's causing that. That's something new, which we didn't know before."
126 GeV puts us right in the metastable range, meaning that at some point billions of years from now, the universe could suddenly flip and things would get nasty pretty quick. In order to get into the ground state, a little bubble of pure vacuum could pop up somewhere and expand at the speed of light in all directions.
"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," Lykken said.
In order to know for sure, however, the Large Hadron Collider — where what may turn out to be the Higgs was discovered last July — needs to get back up and running. It will be inoperative for the next couple years while upgrades take place. A couple years after that, when the mass is confirmed, we'll know better the ultimate fate of the universe.