May 03, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

The End of the Universe is Closer Than You Think

If you’re one of those people who look at the Chicxulub dinosaur extinction asteroid as a recent event, then this should worry you – a new study proposes that the expansion of the universe will end about that far into the future … and the collapse and end of the universe not long after that. Even if you think that’s a long way off, it’s close enough that some physicists are looking at it as a way to model and understand dark energy today.

“Although the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate today, this paper presents a simple mechanism by which a dynamical form of dark energy (known as quintessence) could cause the acceleration to come to end and smoothly transition from expansion to a phase of slow contraction. That raises questions, How soon could this transition occur? And at what point would it be detectable?”

The end?

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the eerie title, “Rapidly descending dark energy and the end of cosmic expansion,” lead author and physicist Paul J. Steinhardt from Princeton University challenge the majority opinion among scientists that the ongoing expansion of the universe is infinite, making its lifespan endless. In fact, that expansion is accelerating, which most physicists see as a good sign. Not Steinhardt and his Princeton team. They see dark energy as a type of quintessence or a dynamic field changing over time which is causing the accelerated expansion of the universe to slow down. Steinhardt has proposed this before, but this complex mathematical paper strives to measure  it and then extrapolate it to the end of the universe.

“We introduce the quintessence-driven slow-contraction CDM (Q-SC-CDM) model to refer to CDM models with a phase of quintessence-driven (Q) accelerated expansion transitioning in the future to decelerated expansion and subsequently to slow contraction (SC), where all phases are dominated by a scalar field ϕ(x,t) evolving down a potential V(ϕ).”

With that being one of the easier paragraphs to read in the study, we’re fortunate that LiveScience talked to Steinhardt at a level a few pay grades below Princeton physics professor. He says the decline in acceleration could have begun billions of years ago and is nearing the end of the cycle when the acceleration of the universe’s expansion will become the contraction of the universe. While it’s a slow contraction, eventually, the contraction will end too. And then?

“What happens after the transition from expansion to contraction is model dependent. Notably, Q-SC-CDM connects naturally with the recently proposed cyclic model of the universe in which the big bang is replaced by a nonsingular classical bounce that connects a previous period of slow contraction to a subsequent period of radiation-, matter-, and dark energy-dominated expansion.”

The new beginning?

In simple terms, Steinhardt calls the end of the universe contraction the ‘big bounce’ – where a new Big Bang occurs and a new universe bounces back into reality and the expansion begins all over again. The good news is, while the contraction will being in 65-100 million years, the Big Bounce is still billions of years away. The bad news is, there’s no way to test this theory. The date demise of the universe – and us with it – remains unknown.

That gives us plenty of time to come up with a better description than the Big Bounce.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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