Let’s imagine for a second you are a comic-book style madman bent on destroying the earth. You’ve had enough of this planet and all life on it, and you’re trying to come up with a way to end it all permanently. Nuclear war? Famine? Disease? Maybe you could find a way to simultaneously set off every volcano and call it an existence? Science fiction has long theorized ways someone could annihilate our little blue marble, but why stop there? Why not go for the whole shebang, the universe itself? Well you won’t need the work of a fiction writer to imagine how that might be done, because science already has a pretty scary, real way all of life could come to an abrupt end: a phenomenon called vacuum decay.
And yes, it would totally suck.
In the latest video from Kurzgesagt–In a Nutshell, they explain not just how life itself could be efficiently and swiftly destroyed throughout the whole universe, but how the rules of chemistry and physics could be completely wiped out as well, making it impossible for life to ever exist again.
It starts with understanding two principles: energy levels and stability. Everything has an energy level, and high energy levels want to get to their low energy states. That is stability. This desire also goes for quantum fields, which can be thought of as “the rules of the universe,” because they are what tell particles how to behave.
When quantum fields reach stability it is known as a vacuum state (no relation to the concept of the vacuum of space). Except possibly for one, and it’s an important one, the Higgs field, which is responsible for giving particles their mass, which means it dictates how every particle in the universe interacts.
The theory is that the Higgs field is actually metastable–not actually stable, just pretending to be. That’s known as a false vacuum, and it is where we might find the spark that will swallow up the whole universe, a destructive event called vacuum decay.
If the Higgs field isn’t really stable that would mean it has way more energy than thought, and if it finds a way to release it, say through vacuum tunneling (imagine a ball in a valley finding a way to dig through the side of a mountain so it could proceed to fall down a slope, releasing energy it didn’t have when resting), it would set off a chain reaction of vacuum decay that could, in theory, devour the whole universe. As the Higgs field moved into the lower energy state it would release so much potential energy that it would actually push the space around it, crossing barriers, and in turn releasing even more potential energy. It would move in all directions, like an expanding circle of death for the universe, at the speed of light.
Once it starts, that’s it. That’s really it. Anything it touched would be “eliminated from existence.”
We wouldn’t see it coming here on Earth. In a fraction of a second we’d be wiped out, along with the rules of physics as we know them. The destruction would completely alter the rules of science, actually upending the way life forms in the universe and how particles interact. We have no idea what would be left behind; life, as it is known, wouldn’t exist, so it might never exist again.
What’s even scarier is that maybe this sphere of death, or that multiple spheres, already exist, and are heading our way already.
The good news is that it is possible that might be true and we still don’t have to worry, because the universe is expanding, and the sphere is running on a sort of cosmic treadmill, moving but never getting closer to us. Or, even if it does get here we’ll long be gone by then because it took billions of years to reach us. (Uh…yay?)
Plus, this is all speculation. What we don’t know about the universe is almost equal in size to the universe itself. Besides, we have bigger, more pressing issues to deal with right now that could wipe us out without the help of vacuum decay, like climate change.
Because there’s no point in worrying about the theoretical destruction of the entire universe when we aren’t even taking care of one planet. Worrying about vacuum decay won’t matter if we continue to act like madmen when it comes to taking care of earth.
Does this scare you? Are you going to worry about how much vacuum decay would suck, or just blow it off as something you can’t control? Talk about it with us in the comments below.