Vacuum decay: the ultimate catastrophe

Every once in a while, physicists come up with a new way to destroy the Universe. There’s the Big Rip (a rending of spacetime), the Heat Death (expansion to a cold and empty Universe), and the Big Crunch (the reversal of cosmic expansion). My favourite, though, has always been vacuum decay. It’s a quick, clean and efficient way of wiping out the Universe.

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Conceptual illustration of the Higgs Field that physicists believe permeates the Universe, and that could theoretically bring about its end.
Credit: David Parker/Getty Images

To understand vacuum decay, you need to consider the Higgs field that permeates our Universe. Like an electric field, the Higgs field varies in strength, based on its potential. Think of the potential as a track on which a ball is rolling. The higher it is on the track, the more energy the ball has.

The Higgs potential determines whether the Universe is in one of two states: a true vacuum, or a false vacuum. A true vacuum is the stable, lowest-energy state, like sitting still on a valley floor. A false vacuum is like being nestled in a divot in the valley wall – a little push could easily send you tumbling. A universe in a false vacuum state is called “metastable”, because it’s not actively decaying (rolling), but it’s not exactly stable either.

There are two problems with living in a metastable universe. One is that if you create a high enough energy event, you can, in theory, push a tiny region of the universe from the false vacuum into the true vacuum, creating a bubble of true vacuum that will then expand in all directions at the speed of light. Such a bubble would be lethal.

The other problem is that quantum mechanics says that a particle can ‘tunnel’ through a barrier between one region and another, and this also applies to the vacuum state. So a universe that is sitting quite happily in the false vacuum could, via random quantum fluctuations, suddenly find part of itself in the true vacuum, causing disaster.

The possibility of vacuum decay has come up a lot lately because measurements of the mass of the Higgs boson seem to indicate the vacuum is metastable. But there are good reasons to think some new physics will intervene and save the day.

One reason is that the hypothesised inflationary epoch in the early Universe, when the Universe expanded rapidly in the first tiny fraction of a second, probably produced energies high enough to push the vacuum over the edge into the true vacuum. The fact that we’re still here indicates one of three things. Inflation occurred at energies too low to tip us over the edge, inflation did not take place at all, or the Universe is more stable than the calculations suggest.

If the Universe is indeed metastable, then, technically, the transition could occur through quantum processes at any time. But it probably won’t – the lifetime of a metastable universe is predicted to be much longer than the current age of the Universe.

So we don’t need to worry. But what would happen if the vacuum did decay?

The walls of the true vacuum bubble would expand in all directions at the speed of light. You wouldn’t see it coming. The walls can contain a huge amount of energy, so you might be incinerated as the bubble wall ploughed through you. Different vacuum states have different constants of nature, so the basic structure of matter might also be disastrously altered. But it could be even worse: in 1980, theoretical physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia calculated for the first time that any bubble of true vacuum would immediately suffer total gravitational collapse.

They say: “This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it.

“However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some creatures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.”

To know for sure what would happen inside a bubble of true vacuum, we’d need a theory that describes our larger multiverse, and we don’t have that yet. But suffice it to say, it would not be good. Luckily, we’re probably reasonably safe.

At least for now.

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