By IAN O’NEILL
It’s funny when two seemingly distant theories conspire to destroy the universe.
This may seem a little far fetched, but if our understanding of the physics behind the recently-discovered Higgs boson (or, more specifically, the Higgs field — the ubiquitous field that endows all stuff with mass) is correct, our universe shouldn’t exist. That is, however, if another cosmological hypothesis is real, a hypothesis that is currently undergoing intense scrutiny in light of the BICEP2 results.
You may have heard about the controversy surrounding a certain telescope located near the South Pole. The BICEP2 telescope was built with one purpose in mind: to detect a specific type of polarized light being emitted by cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. In short, BICEP2 announced (perhaps prematurely) that they had detected this B-mode polarization, indicating the presence of gravitational waves. For these waves to be embedded in the CMB, one key hypothesis of the origin of the universe may be valid.
The hypothesis is called “cosmological inflation” and this model helps cosmologists explain many tricky questions about how our universe was formed.
But according to a group of British cosmologists, inflation really throws a wrench (a.k.a. “a spanner”) into the Cosmic engine — if the physics behind the recently discovered Higgs boson are solid, the rapid inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago would have thrown our early universe into chaos.
In fact, things would have gotten so out of hand within the first second of our universe’s creation that we shouldn’t even be here — the universe would have collapsed — known, unsurprisingly, as the “Big Crunch” — into nothing even before matter could condense out of the Big Bang’s primordial mess of energy.
In research presented today (Tuesday) at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth, UK, Malcolm Fairbairn and Robert Hogan of King’s College London (KCL) discussed the implications of recent discoveries in particle physics and the origins of our universe. Their conclusions will likely cause some unrest.
Since the discovery of a Higgs-like boson by Large Hadron Collider (LHC) physicists in 2012, further studies and data analysis has proven that this particular boson really is the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle that mediates the Higgs field. The Higgs field is believed to fill the entire known universe and endows all matter with mass. Since its discovery, physicists have been getting up-close and personal with the Higgs and experimental analyses has not only proven its existence, scientists are also becoming very familiar with the boson’s (and, by extension, the field it exchanges) properties.
But the problem with the Higgs field is that, if given enough energy, it has the power to reverse cosmic expansion and create a Big Crunch.
The mathematics to arise from accepted Higgs field theory suggests the universe is currently sitting comfortably in a Higgs field energy “valley.” To get out of this valley and up the adjacent “hill” (as shown in the energy diagram, right), huge quantities of energy would need to be unleashed inside the field. But, if there were enough energy to push the universe over the hill and into the deeper energy valley next door, the universe would simply, and catastrophically, collapse.
This is where the BICEP2 results come in. If their observations are real and gravitational waves in the CMB prove cosmological inflation, the Higgs field has already been kicked by too much energy, pushing the Higgs field over the energy hill and deep into the neighboring valley’s precipice! For any wannabe universe, this is very bad news — the newborn universe would appear as a Big Bang, the Higgs field would become overloaded with an energetic inflationary period, and the whole lot would vanish in a blink of an eye.
“This is an unacceptable prediction of the theory because if this had happened we wouldn’t be around to discuss it,” said Hogan.
This is a fascinating insight as to how studies of the quantum world can have impacts on a cosmological scale and the outcome of this research could be another kick in the teeth for the BICEP2 findings. But there is another exciting implication if the BICEP2 observations are proven to be correct and provides much-needed evidence for inflation.
“If BICEP2 is shown to be correct, it tells us that there has to be interesting new particle physics beyond the standard model,” added Hogan.
Exotic, or “new,” physics is currently being hunted down by high-energy physicists at the LHC and other institutions around the world to help explain some of the biggest conundrums in science. For example, physicists are trying to understand how gravity ‘fits’ with the Standard Model (because, right now, it doesn’t), what dark matter is and why the universe is more matter than antimatter. Perhaps there are supersummetric particles that exist at higher energies than we can currently observe, meddling with our known quantum world in very subtle ways.
NEWS: BICEP2 Big Bang ‘Discovery’ Team Urges Caution
Many avenues of “new physics” studies have been closed by the Standard Model that continues to be a reliable “recipe book” for particle physics, but some odd glimpses give physicists hope that our universe is hiding physics that we cannot fully grasp, yet.
So, if BICEP2′s observations are real and Higgs boson theory continues to strengthen, perhaps theorists will be buoyed-up in the knowledge that something else — something exotic — prevented cosmological inflation from collapsing the universe back down to a dot. Might there be another mechanism that counteracts the Higgs field’s universe-killing potential?
For now, this remains an open question, but fortunately for us, we’re here asking these big questions, so something isn’t quite adding up.