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Will the Higgs Boson Destroy the Universe?

In the preface to an upcoming book, Stephen Hawking remarked that humanity might—at some point in the distant future—be capable of accidentally destroying the universe itself by disrupting the Higgs field:

“The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100bn gigaelectronvolts (GeV). This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming, [but] …[a] particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth, and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate.”

The idea that humanity might one day be able to destroy the universe by disrupting the Higgs field with some unimaginably powerful kind of supercollider is based on some very speculative science, but the idea of a natural Higgs-based apocalypse is more widely accepted. CERN’s Gian Giudice, one of the world’s leading particle physicists, explains that the Higgs field appears to be resting on a precipice—and that quantum tunneling, and the conversion of the Higgs field to an unmanageable state, could unfold in the distant future:

“Our calculation shows that quantum tunneling of the Higgs field is not likely to occur in the next 10¹⁰⁰ years … So it is really unlikely that we will be around to see the Higgs field collapse.”

This natural apocalypse scenario, and Hawking’s accidental apocalypse scenario, may both fall apartas CERN’s experiments continue:

“Most scientists … expect that the [Large Hadron Collider] will find other particles in due course. Then, new calculations could indicate that the universe has more stability … ‘The top quark strongly affects the vacuum by its quantum fluctuations because it is so heavy,’ [Cambridge physicist Benjamin] Allanach says. ‘If the Higgs mass were really 127 GeV and the top mass were a little lower than its most likely value, then actually the universe would be completely stable and the vacuum would be in the true minimum.’”

But supposing it does turn out that the Higgs field apocalypse is a real danger, and supposing it seems imminent on a future human scale, our descendants may be able to predict—and, ultimately, prevent—it using a surgical application of exactly the sort of Higgs-warping technology Hawking describes above. And if that sounds laughably optimistic, remember: we just spotted our first asteroid in 1801, and we’ll be ready to deflect one in seven years. I like our odds.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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