A fundamental particle that gives mass to all matter in the universe could one day lead to its destruction, physicists have revealed. Experts say that our cosmos may ended as abruptly as it began in a collision with a bubble of negative energy, created by a Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God particle’.
The slow demise of our ever-expanding universe is predicted in the Standard Model of particle physics, used by scientists to explain the basic building blocks of matter. Under it, a force called dark energy is driving accelerating expansion of the universe which will continue until everything fades to a cold, featureless abyss.
But a new study suggests the end will come with a bang, rather than a whimper, in around 10×139 years. Worse still, the processes behind this dramatic finale to all life as we know it may have already started, kick started by interaction with a black hole.
Researchers at Harvard University made the startling discovery by studying what we already know about the masses of particles and how they interact. The mass of the Higgs Boson, theorised since the 1970s and discovered in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider, is believed to be 125 gigaelectronvolts – a measure of energy used in particle accelerator physics.
However, thanks to a quirk of quantum physics – the laws of the universe which explain the interaction of sub-atomic particles – this mass may not always remain constant. Experts theorise that the current mass of the Higgs boson may one day be altered.
Should this happen to the quantum particle, which gives all other matter its mass, it could tear apart all of the processes that make life in our universe possible. This could create an expanding bubble of negative energy in which the laws of physics as we know them are completely obliterated. This bubble would continue growing until it envelops the entirety of the universe. Speaking to New Scientist, Harvard researcher Anders Andreassen said: ‘We wanted to fix all the previous approximations and get the exact date (for the universe’s end) as pinned down as we could.
‘It is sobering to envision this bubble, with its wall of negative energy, barrelling towards us at the speed of light. We will never see it coming.’
While this may seem far-fetched, gaps in the Standard Model do allow room for it to occur, at least mathematically. Our current understanding of physics cannot explain the operations of dark matter or dark energy, theoretical forces and particles needed for the universe to function. Some theories to plug these gaps could see the universe extend on infinitely through time, with no end in sight.
One expert believes, however, that destruction of the universe is the more likely eventuality, at a black hole could be enough to trigger the process happening. Black holes are so dense and their gravitational pull is so strong that no form of radiation can escape them – not even light.
They act as intense sources of gravity which hoover up dust and gas around them. The intense gravitational pull of supermassive black holes is thought to be what stars in galaxies orbit around.
Ruth Gregory at Durham University, who was not involved in the study, has shown that the curvature of space-time surrounding a microscopic black hole could kick start the collapse of the Higgs boson. Were this to happen, it’s likely we would never know it until was too late. What we can see of the universe from Earth is a tiny slice of what exists beyond our solar system and even galaxy.
We can observe the universe to a distance of around 13.8 billion light years, but one calculation, based on expansion of the universe since the Big Bang, depicts the observable universe as a sphere of around 92 billion light-years.
Another, conducted by the University of Oxford in 2011 based on a statistical analysis of all known results on the universe’s size, puts it around at least seven trillion light-years across. Others suggest that it is infinitely large.
All this means that the chances of the Higgs boson collapse happening somewhere beyond the distance it takes light to travel to Earth is extremely high.
For all we know, the collapse may already have happened, and we are simply to far away for light from this event to have reached us yet. By the time it does, it will already be too late. The full findings were published in the journal Physical Review D.