The Hadron Collider



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Stephen Hawking bet Gordon Kane $100 that physicists would not discover the Higgs boson. After losing that bet when physicists detected the particle in 2012, Hawking lamented the discovery, saying it made less interesting. Now, in the preface to a new collection of essays and lectures called “Starmus,” the famous theoretical physicist is warning that the particle could one day be responsible for the destruction of the known universe.

Hawking is not the only scientist who thinks so. The theory of a Higgs boson doomsday, where a quantum fluctuation creates a vacuum “bubble” that expands through space and wipes out the universe, has existed for a while. However, scientists don’t think it could happen anytime soon.


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“Most likely it will take 10 to the 100 years [a 1 followed by 100 zeroes] for this to happen, so probably you shouldn’t sell your house and you should continue to pay your taxes,” Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, said during his lecture at the SETI Institute on Sept. 2. “On the other hand it may already happened, and the bubble might be on its way here now. And you won’t know because it’s going at the speed of light so there’s not going to be any warning.” 

The Higgs boson, sometimes referred to as the ‘god particle,’ much to the chagrin of scientists who prefer the official name, is a tiny particle that researchers long suspected existed. Its discovery lends strong support to the Standard Model of , or the known rules of that scientists believe govern the basic building blocks of matter. The Higgs boson particle is so important to the Standard Model because it signals the existence of the Higgs field, an invisible energy field present throughout the universe that imbues other particles with . Since its discovery two years ago, the particle has been making waves in the physics community.

Now that scientists measured the particle’s mass last year, they can make many other calculations, including one that seems to spell out the end of the universe.

Universe doomsday

The Higgs boson is about 126 billion electron volts, or about the 126 times the mass of a proton. This turns out to be the precise mass needed to keep the universe on the brink of instability, but physicists say the delicate state will eventually collapse and the universe will become unstable. That conclusion involves the Higgs field.

The Higgs field emerged at the birth of the universe and has acted as its own source of energy since then, Lykken said. Physicists believe the Higgs field may be slowly changing as it tries to find an optimal balance of field strength and energy required to maintain that strength. 

“Just like matter can exist as liquid or solid, so the Higgs field, the substance that fills all space-time, could exist in two states,” Gian Giudice, a theoretical physicist at the CERN lab, where the Higgs boson was discovered, explained during a TED talk in October 2013.

Right now the Higgs field is in a minimum potential energy state — like a valley in a field of hills and valleys. The huge amount of energy required to change into another state is like chugging up a hill. If the Higgs field makes it over that energy hill, some physicists think the destruction of the universe is waiting on the other side.