Cosmos may be 'inherently unstable'

Particle tracks Collisions at the LHC in Geneva have refined a mass for the Higgs-like particle

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Scientists say they may be able to determine the eventual fate of the cosmos as they probe the properties of the Higgs boson.

A concept known as vacuum instability could result, billions of years from now, in a new universe opening up in the present one and replacing it.

It all depends on some precise numbers related to the Higgs that researchers are currently trying to pin down.

A "Higgs-like" particle was first seen at the Large Hadron Collider last year.

Associated with an energy field that pervades all space, the boson helps explain the existence of mass in the cosmos. In other words, it underpins the workings of all the matter we see around us.

Since detecting the particle in their accelerator experiments, researchers at the Geneva lab and at related institutions around the world have begun to theorise on the Higgs' implications for physics.

One idea that it throws up is the possibility of a cyclical universe, in which every so often all of space is renewed.

"It turns out there's a calculation you can do in our Standard Model of particle physics, once you know the mass of the Higgs boson," explained Dr Joseph Lykken.

Start Quote

This bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it”

End Quote Dr Joseph Lykken Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

"If you use all the physics we know now, and you do this straightforward calculation - it's bad news.

"What happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny bubble of the vacuum the Universe really wants to be in. And because it's a lower-energy state, this bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it," the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory theoretician told BBC News.

It was not something we need worry about, he said. The Sun and the Earth will be long gone by this time.

Dr Lykken was speaking here in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

He was participating in a session that had been organised to provide an update on the Higgs investigation.

Two-year hiatus

The boson was spotted in the wreckage resulting from proton particle collisions in the LHC's giant accelerator ring.

Data gathered by two independent detectors observing this subatomic debris determined the mass of the Higgs to be about 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV).

What is an electronvolt?

Particle interaction simulation (SPL)
  • Charged particles tend to speed up in an electric field, defined as an electric potential - or voltage - spread over a distance
  • One electron volt (eV) is the energy gained by a single electron as it accelerates through a potential of one volt
  • It is a convenient unit of measure for particle accelerators, which speed particles up through much higher electric potentials
  • The first accelerators only created bunches of particles with an energy of about a million eV
  • The LHC can reach particle energies a million times higher: up to several teraelectronvolts (TeV)
  • This is still only the energy in the motion of a flying mosquito
  • But LHC beams include hundreds of trillions of these particles, each travelling at 99.99999999% of the speed of light
  • Together, an LHC beam carries the same energy as a TGV high-speed train travelling at 150 km/h

That was fascinating, said Prof Chris Hill of Ohio State University, because the number was right in the region where the instability problem became relevant.

"Before we knew, the Higgs could have been any mass over a very wide range. And what's amazing to me is that out of all those possible masses from 114 to several hundred GeV, it's landed at 126-ish where it's right on the critical line, and now we have to measure it more precisely to find the fate of the Universe," he said.

Prof Hill himself is part of the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) Collaboration at the LHC. This is one of the Higgs-hunting detectors, the other being Atlas.

Scientists have still to review about a third of the collision data in their possession. But they will likely need much more information to close the uncertainties that remain in the measurement of the Higgs' mass and its other properties.

Indeed, until they do so, they are reluctant to definitively crown the boson, preferring often to say just that they have found a "Higgs-like" particle.

Frustratingly, the LHC has now been shut down to allow for a major programme of repairs and upgrades.

"To be absolutely definitive, I think it's going to take a few years after the LHC starts running again, which is in 2015," conceded Dr Howard Gordon, from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and an Atlas Collaboration member.

"The LHC will be down for two years to do certain repairs, fix the splices between the magnets, and to do maintenance and stuff. So, when we start running in 2015, we will be at a higher energy, which will mean we'll get more data on the Higgs and other particles to open up a larger window of opportunity for discovery. But to dot all the I's and cross all the T's, it will take a few more years."

If the calculation on vacuum instability stands up, it will revive an old idea that the Big Bang Universe we observe today is just the latest version in a permanent cycle of events.

"I think that idea is getting more and more traction," said Dr Lykken.

"It's much easier to explain a lot of things if what we see is a cycle. If I were to bet my own money on it, I'd bet the cyclic idea is right," he told BBC News.

The Standard Model and the Higgs boson

Standard model

The Standard Model is the simplest set of ingredients - elementary particles - needed to make up the world we see in the heavens and in the laboratory

Quarks combine together to make, for example, the proton and neutron - which make up the nuclei of atoms today - though more exotic combinations were around in the Universe's early days

Leptons come in charged and uncharged versions; electrons - the most familiar charged lepton - together with quarks make up all the matter we can see; the uncharged leptons are neutrinos, which rarely interact with matter

The "force carriers" are particles whose movements are observed as familiar forces such as those behind electricity and light (electromagnetism) and radioactive decay (the weak nuclear force)

The Higgs boson came about because although the Standard Model holds together neatly, nothing requires the particles to have mass; for a fuller theory, the Higgs - or something else - must fill in that gap and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos


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  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    I am sick of the foolish comments about wasting money on things like this, the total science budget is a pittance compared to virtually all other government spending and offers us the chance to change the world. MRI scanner technology came from particle physics and no-one is debating its worth. If early man had the attitude of some posters here they would have never come down from the trees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    Why every time there is a scientific finding or theory do so many 'God believers' feel the need to shoot it down and write a non sensible comment?
    This is an incredible idea. We should be glad that we have people amongst us that can theorize and allow us to understand how the universe came to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    You can analyse a carpet, pick it apart piece by piece and discover it's smallest parts. You can even work out how it was woven together but at the end of the day, someone still made it. Science is fasinating but God will change your life. Will reading that article help you give up addictions, heal you of sickness or make you vow to be a better person and go out and do good?

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    How much taxpayer's money is being wasted on brainstorming about the end of the world. Are these idiot scientists unaware there is a financial crisis going on. It's high time governments stopped funding this nonsense and started spending the money on thing that are important to ordinary people.Like schools, hospitals, defence and infrastructure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    From my rather limited understanding of science (I'm no Steven Hawking!) I find this weird and it goes against everything I was taught about science. Every thing we see tries to attain the most stable state possible, and I know of no isolated system that does otherwise.

    I would guess that if we end up thinking the universe is unstable we're probably looking at it from the wrong direction!

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    "It seems appropriate to remember Douglas Adams' prediction that if anyone ever understood the Universe, it would immediately disappear to be replaced by something even more incomprehensible." He also suggested that some people think this has happened already!

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    WiseOldBob (392)

    "If you appeal they will tell you why they removed your comment"

    First they email you giving some general categories they object to. What they SHOULD do, but don't, is HIGHLIGHT the word or phrase which they object to, so you never know what they were thinking. You can only ever guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    I've got a headache just trying to understand the physics. . . . . .Brian Cox may be bringing it back into a fashion of sorts but . . . . . . . . . How can anyone, no matter how qualified know any of this for sure? It fuddles my brain thats for sure.. . . . .All I know is that they are researching to find, but the money is better spent elsewhere me thinks

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Instability destroys and creates, the earth evolved from instability and destruction....isn't science great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    With stars exploding all over the place & stars/planets/galaxys whizzing around the place at massive speed, colliding, exploding, creating new, & black holes that eat & destroy all within its reach, to say the cosmos is unstable is a bit of an understatement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    "406. mark
    why spend billions on going to mars when all that money could save people who have illnesses, youd think that humans would come first no matter what but do they, give a scientist an inch and they will take a mile in time they will just distroy us all"

    Yes, because priests invent and discover treatments all the time. Scientists using scientific methods have never saved a life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Anyone born now will see a revolution in human thinking as extraordinary as that arising from Einsteins relativity and the discovery of spacetime. We are on the brink of extraordinary shifts in the way we think. All of this from the sciences of biology, cosmology, mathematics and the computer. A wonderful time to be alive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    32. "It's never been this exciting since Galileo (while coincidentally investigating gravity) dropped his balls over the balcony of the tower Pisa."

    ...and was subsequently arrested, placed under house arrest and put on the Vatican's Special List. Moral of the story: be careful where you drop your balls... metal ones or otherwise.

    Sorry - couldn't resist!

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Curiosity is what makes us human, without it we would still be sat in Africa scrabbling around the forest in our altogether!
    Would all the religious extremists that poison this sort of debate please stop using electricity, medicine, cars, plastic, glass etc.... all scientific inventions that obviously run contrary to the will of God.
    Great article - more science please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Flat earth, fixed in space. Fixed stars. A few wandering planets.


    The Big Bang, subatomic particles, dark matter and energy, accelerating universe, space-time, supernovae, quasars, black holes, all ending in the Big Crunch, the Heat Death or the Big Rip (take your choice)!

    I know which universe I prefer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    There you go then...

  • Comment number 424.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 423.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    @387 complete nonsense. I've yet to see a scientist who hasn't questioned his methods or discoveries. That is by definition science. I've yet to meet a religious person question god. Gods will is unquestionable in the minds of relgious folk and that is the logical difference. If it were gods will we'd all be killed by TB, small pox, the plague, flu etc by the time we were 40. Wise up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    388. Impoverished_Capitalist
    Just a few hundred years ago scientists beleived that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe, that the earth was flat, and it was bossible to make Gold from lead. We now laugh at such ideas.

    Whereas the enlightened Christians were burning people at the stake for being in possession of the wrong book of prayers.


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