Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

False vacuum catastrophe

It's odd how enamored people are of things that could destroy the entire universe.

I mean, on one level I get it.  The sheer power of the natural world is pretty awe-inspiring, and as I've mentioned before, if I hadn't become a mild-mannered high school biology teacher, I definitely would have been a a tornado chaser.  That same love of extreme danger (especially when it's not you experiencing it) explains shows like The Deadliest Catch and the innumerable quasi-documentaries wherein divers swim around in chum-filled waters and still seem surprised when they're attacked by sharks.

But on a larger scale, there's a real curiosity about things that could wipe out pretty much everything.  A while back, I wrote a piece about people sounding gleeful that we might be looking down the gun barrel of a gamma-ray burster (we're not), and over and over we've heard alarmists suggesting that CERN was going to create a black hole that would eat the Earth (it's not).  But that doesn't begin to exhaust the ways in which we all could die in horrible agony.

Which brings us to the concept of the false vacuum.

Sounds harmless enough, doesn't it?  Well, this is in the long tradition of physicists giving seriously weird things cutesy names, like "strange quarks" and "glueballs."

The idea of the false vacuum is that the universe is currently in a "metastable state."  What this means is that we're currently in a locally stable configuration, but if something destabilizes us a little bit, we might find ourselves suddenly plunging into a more stable state -- a "true vacuum."  The situation, then would be similar to that of the little ball in the graph below:


As long as nothing disturbs the status quo, the ball is stable; but if something gives it a push up the hill in the middle, it'll crest the hill and find itself rushing downward into a more stable position -- the "true vacuum."

Why this concerns anyone but the physicists is that the result of our reconfiguring into a true vacuum would be that a bubble would form, rushing outward at the speed of light, and destroying everything in its path.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics suggests that from the mass of the Higgs boson and the top quark, an estimate could be made of just how likely this is.  Writer Robert Walker concludes, from the research of Joseph Lykken and others, that the answer is "not very:"
[I]f it could happen, then you’d expect it to have happened already in the first 1/10,000,000,000th of a second along with the other symmetry breaking when gravity split off from the other forces, when it was tremendously hot... 
Since that hasn’t happened, the false vacuum has to be very stable, or else, probably as we find new physics we find out that it is not in a false vacuum state at all. 
And yes, on the basis of the measured mass of the Higgs boson, the false vacuum has to be very stable.  Joseph Lykken says that an event that triggers a patch of true vacuum, if the theory is correct, happens on average once every 10, 000, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years. 
That means it is nothing to be worried about.
Walker, who is a mathematician, says that the likelihood of a true vacuum bubble occurring in any given century is less than the likelihood of purchasing tickets for twelve consecutive Euromillions lotteries, and winning the jackpot for all of them.

So "don't worry about it" seems to be an understatement.

However, that hasn't stopped the alarmists from freaking out about it, probably largely due to the fact that if it did happen, it would be pretty catastrophic.  Also, because a lot of them seem to feel that the physicists (for this, read "mad scientists") are actively trying to trigger the creation of a true vacuum, which would be an idiotic thing to do even if it were possible because they'd be the first ones to get vaporized, and wouldn't even have the pleasure of standing around rubbing their hands together and cackling maniacally for more than about a microsecond.

But then there are the ones who think that it could happen accidentally (again, because of CERN, of course), and the physicists are simply being reckless, not suicidal.  I tend to agree with Walker, though.  I'm way more worried about the idiotic things humans are currently doing to the environment, and our determination to slaughter each other over things like who has the best Invisible Friend, than I am about triggering the Scary Bubble of Death.

Anyhow.  That's our Terrifying Thing That Can Kill you for today, along with some soothing words about why it's not very likely.  Now you'll have to excuse me, because I'm gonna go have a pint of beer and watch Twister for the 17th time.

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