Fermilab Today Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014
Physics in a Nutshell

Epic facepalm

A recent statement by physicist Stephen Hawking has been misrepresented in the extreme. Let's take a look at what he really meant.

If you're a science enthusiast, this week you have likely encountered outlandish headlines invoking Stephen Hawking, the Higgs boson and the end of the universe. I hope you had the presence of mind to react as the famous actor in the picture did. Let's start with the answer first. The universe is safe and will be for a very long time — for trillions of years. This story as widely reported by the media is a jaw-dropping misrepresentation of science.

To understand how abominably Hawking's statement was twisted, first we need to understand the statement. To paraphrase just a little, Hawking said that in a world in which the Higgs boson and the top quark have the masses that scientists have measured, the universe is in a metastable state.

So let's take those pieces one at a time. What does "metastable" mean? Basically, metastable means "kind of stable." So what does that mean? Let's consider an example. Take a pool cue and lay it on the pool table. The cue is stable; it's not going anywhere. Take the same cue and balance it on your finger. That's unstable; under almost any circumstances, the cue will fall over. So the terms stable and unstable are easy and have familiar, real-world analogues. The analogy for a metastable object is a barstool. Under almost all circumstances, the stool will sit there for all eternity. However, if you bump the stool hard enough, it will fall over. When the stool has fallen over, it is now more stable than it was, just like the pool cue lying on the table.

Now we need to bring in the universe and the laws that govern it. Here is an important guiding principle: The universe is lazy — a giant, cosmic couch potato. If at all possible, the universe will figure out a way to move to the lowest energy state it can. A simple analogy is a ball placed on the side of a mountain. It will roll down the mountainside and come to rest at the bottom of the valley. This ball would then be in a stable configuration. The universe is the same way. After the cosmos was created, the fields that make up the universe should arrange themselves into the lowest possible energy state.

A stable thing is something that won't change, like this pool cue on the table. An unstable thing is something that will quickly change, like this pool cue balanced on the man's hand. A metastable thing will eventually change, but will not do so quickly or easily. An example is this stool, which is more stable when it is lying down, but it will stay upright for long periods of time.

There is a proviso. Just as on a slope of a mountain, where there may be a little valley part way up the hill (above the real valley), it is possible that there could be little "valleys" in the energy slope. As the universe cooled, it could be that it might have been caught in one of those little valleys. Ideally, the universe would like to fall into the deeper valley below, but it could be trapped. This is an example of a metastable state. As long as the little valley is deep enough, it's hard to get out of. Indeed, using classical physics, it is impossible to get out of it.

However, we don't live in a classical world. In our universe, we must take into account the nature of quantum mechanics. There are many ways to describe the quantum realm, but one of the properties most relevant here is "rare things happen." In essence, if the universe was trapped in a little valley of metastability, it could eventually tunnel out of the valley and fall down into the deeper valley below.

So what are the consequences of the universe slipping from one valley to another? Well, the rules of the universe are governed by the valley in which it finds itself. In the metastable valley that defines our familiar universe, we have the rules of physics and chemistry that allow matter to assemble into atoms and, eventually, us. If the universe slipped into a different valley, the rules that govern matter and energy would be different. This means, among other things, quarks and leptons might be impossible. The known forces might not apply. In short, there is no reason to think we'd exist at all.

In the context of the cosmos, the universe prefers to be in the lowest energy state. However it is possible that our familiar cosmos is in a little valley higher up the slope. In this little valley, the rules of matter with which we are familiar reign supreme. However, if the universe ever transitions to the lower valley, the rules of physics might change entirely. Those new rules could be anything, including ones in which matter doesn't exist. It probably doesn't need saying, but for my Chicago readers, I should caution them that a universe in which the Cubs win the World Series is still exceedingly unlikely.

Whether our universe is in a stable configuration, an unstable configuration or a metastable one depends on the mass of the Higgs boson and the mass of the top quark. The dot shows tells us the value of those parameters in our universe. We see that it appears that the universe appears to be metastable but, as noted in the text, there is clearly a lot still to be understood before we can be sure.

This leads us to ask how the transition would occur. Would we have any warning? Actually, we'd have no warning at all. If, somewhere in the cosmos, the universe made a transition from a metastable valley to a deeper one, the laws of physics would change and sweep away at the speed of light. As the shockwave passed over the solar system, we'd simply disappear as the laws that govern the matter that makes us up would just cease to apply. One second we'd be here; the next we'd be gone.

Coming back to the original question, what does the Higgs boson tell us about this? It turns out that we can use the Standard Model to tell us whether we are in a stable, unstable or metastable universe. We know we don't live in an unstable one, because we're here, but the other two options are open. So, what is the answer? It depends on two parameters: the mass of the top quark and the mass of the Higgs boson. As we see in the figure to the right, our universe appears to be in a metastable state, although it is quite close to the stable region. The size of the box reflects our uncertainty in our measurements.

So if we follow our understanding of the Standard Model, combined with our best measurements, it appears that we live in a metastable universe that could one day disappear without warning. You can be forgiven if you take that pronouncement as a reason to indulge in some sort of rare treat tonight. But before you splurge too much, take heed of a few words of caution. Using the same Standard Model we used to figure out whether the cosmos is metastable, we can predict how long it is likely to take for quantum mechanics to let the universe slip from the metastable valley to the stable one, and it will take trillions of years. Mankind has only existed for about 100,000 years, and the sun will grow to a red giant and incinerate the Earth in about five billion years. Since we're talking about the universe existing as a metastable state for trillions of years, maybe overindulging tonight might be a bad idea.

It is important to note that finding the Higgs boson has no effect on whether the universe is in a metastable state. If we live in a metastable cosmos, it has been that way since the universe was created. It's like living in a century-old house that was built with a ticking time bomb hidden in its walls. Finding the Higgs boson is like hearing the ticking of the bomb that was always there. I must repeat: The discovery of the Higgs boson has no effect at all on whether the universe is in a metastable state.

Returning to the original, overly hyped media stories, you can see that there was a kernel of truth and a barrel full of hysteria. There is no danger, and it's completely OK to resume watching with great interest the news reports of the discovery and careful measurement of the Higgs boson. And, yes, you have to go to work tomorrow.

Don Lincoln

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