Friday, February 22, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #96 - Part 7

And Another Thing: the Higgs boson and the fate of the universe

To finish up this week, we have an edition of And Another Thing, our occasional foray into things not expressly political and usually, like today, about some cool science thing or another.

Sometime back I told you that scientists believed they may have discovered the Higgs boson, which some nicknamed the God particle because it could answer one of the most fundamental questions in all of physics: Why do things have mass?

Put another way, all the fundamental particles which make up matter are "point particles" - which means they essentially all have the same dimensions of basically zero. So why do they have such enormously different masses? (For example, a proton has over 1800 times the mass of an electron.) Indeed, how can they have mass at all? The Higgs boson (and the associated Higgs field), if it actually has been observed, would provide the answer.

It's still not certain that the Higgs has been observed, and work on related particles, which is necessary for confirmation, continues - but it does seem that confidence is growing.

With that in mind, scientists are starting to consider what it means for the future of the universe for a particle to have the characteristics of the Higgs boson.

Well, according to theoretical physicist Joseph Lykken
If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news. 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.
The idea is, assuming of course this is all correct, which Lykken would be the first to remind you is still an assumption at this point, but if it's correct, at some point in time a little bubble of what you might think of as an "alternative" universe will simply appear somewhere and then will expand out and destroy this universe.

Which raises an interesting, if likely unanswerable, question for me: Did our universe destroy some earlier universe in its expansion?

That aside, if you're concerned, don't be: For one thing, this bubble will expand at the speed of light. Since information can't be transmitted faster than the speed of light, you wouldn't know about the event until it happened to you, and then you wouldn't be there to know about it. It's kind of like when Bill Cosby said his grandfather told him not to worry about getting senile because "when it happens to you, you won't know it."

The other thing is that when this happens, if it happens, you will be long dead - and so in fact with the Earth, which will be burnt up by the expanding Sun about 4.5 billion years from now. So you can make plans for the weekend.


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