Cake or death? Vacuum decay or heat death?

A week ago, I wrote about how thinking of things in a cosmic time and distance frameset could help put the COVID-19 pandemic in perspective. [1] I still think that’s true, but I realized I may have left too rosy of a picture of the universe. Allow me to dot the “I” on that story.

Cake or Death is a hilarious, 1998 routine by Eddie Izzard about fundamentalism in the Church of England. [2] Vacuum Decay or Heat Death are two of the five possible ways the universe could end as described by cosmologist, Katie Mack. [3] Yes, end, as in kaput, dark, dead, ain’t nothin’ here. Admittedly, there’s not really much of a connection between Izzard and Mack beyond being presented with finite solutions to a situation.

In my previous post, I noted that the fiery end of the earth was inevitable, but we could be comforted by knowing that the galaxies and superclusters of galaxies would go on. What I omitted is that even superclusters face an inescapable demise, as does the universe itself. [4] Talk about a perspective to get you through the pandemic!

One way it is thought the universe could end is by a process called heat death. In this scenario, the mysterious dark energy that permeates the universe will continue to drive the acceleration of the galaxies away from each other. At some point, galaxies will be too far away from each other to be seen, there will be no galactic collisions to merge gases and create new stars, and the existing stars will reach their end as determined by their size. Black holes will form and then disappear. The second law of thermodynamics [5] will have won, but there will be no one to see the win. Heat death will be a slow, plodding process and sentient life forms with telescopes and an understanding of astrophysics will see it coming.

On the other hand, vacuum decay would destroy the universe at the speed of light through a disruption to the Higgs field. In quantum theory, the Higgs field is present at every point in the universe and determines the laws of physics and just about everything else. It’s the Higgs field that gives protons and neutrons 10% of their mass. [6] If the Higgs field were to change, the mass of protons and neutrons would change as would everything around us. In a flash. Well, not really in a flash because the Higgs-based destruction would spread so fast we’d never see it coming. One instant we’re here, the next instant we’re gone.

Vacuum decay may not be the most probable way the universe will end, but it’s possible because the Higgs field is not in its lowest ground state. Think of it as a boulder on a hillside held in place by a ridge. The boulder can’t roll all the way down the hill because the ridge is holding it back.  However, if something were to make a hole in the ridge, the boulder could roll through it and all the way to the bottom of the hill. That’s what scientists think is happening with the Higgs field. There’s the quantum equivalent of the ridge keeping the field from reaching its ground state.

The thing is, we know there’s a process of quantum tunneling that would be the equivalent of making a hole in the ridge that allows the boulder to roll down the hill. A big difference between a boulder and vacuum decay is you could see the boulder rolling towards you before you’re smashed. Vacuum decay would be a remarkably peaceful way for life to end – invisible, instantaneous, and utterly painless. You, and all life on the planet, could be gone before you finish reading this sentence.  How’s that for an antithetical perspective to the one last week?

So, to answer Izzard’s question, I’ll choose cake over death, and for the end of the universe, I’ll take vacuum decay.

Dec. 11, 2020. “For 30th Anniversary, Hubble Releases Images of 30 Celestial Gems” [7] (Click on the image to zoom in for the full visual impact.)

 

[1] The COVID-19 pandemic – the big, BIG picture, https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2020/12/06/the-covid-19-pandemic-the-big-big-picture/

[2] Dress to Kill, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unkWbEmtYXs

[3] KATIE MACK, ASTROPHYSICIST, http://www.astrokatie.com/

[4] What Will It Be Like When We Reach The End Of The Universe?  https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2020/05/06/what-will-it-be-like-when-we-reach-the-end-of-the-universe

[5] The second law states that entropy tends to increase in an isolated system.

[6] DOE Explains…the Higgs Boson, https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainsthe-higgs-boson

[7] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/for-30th-anniversary-hubble-releases-images-of-30-celestial-gems

 


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