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One way the universe might end

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 05, 2018

My favorite astrophysicist Katie Mack recently reposted a Cosmos article she wrote about a relatively obscure model for the total annihilation of the universe, called “vacuum decay.”

Essentially, what vacuum decay relies on is the fact that we don’t know for sure whether space is in the lowest energy, most stable possible state (a true vacuum) or at an adjacent, slightly higher energy level (a false vacuum). Space could be only metastable, and a random quantum fluctuation or sufficiently high level energy event could push part of the universe from the false vacuum to the true one. This could cause “a bubble of true vacuum that will then expand in all directions at the speed of light. Such a bubble would be lethal.”

It’s compellingly badass, and as Mack notes, frightfully efficient. First, it’s not the slow petering out that is heat death. Also, it wouldn’t just eliminate our current universe, but all possibility of a universe anything like ours. Vacuum decay destroys space like Roman generals salting the earth at Carthage.

The walls of the true vacuum bubble would expand in all directions at the speed of light. You wouldn’t see it coming. The walls can contain a huge amount of energy, so you might be incinerated as the bubble wall ploughed through you. Different vacuum states have different constants of nature, so the basic structure of matter might also be disastrously altered. But it could be even worse: in 1980, theoretical physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia calculated for the first time that any bubble of true vacuum would immediately suffer total gravitational collapse.

They say: “This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it.

“However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some creatures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.”