Cue "It's the End of the World As We Know It" for background music.
A Fermilab particle physics theorist announced last week that, given what has been learned about the suspected Higgs boson (the "God particle,") it looks like the teeny thing could spell the end of our universe.
But don't become apoplectic about the approaching apocalypse -- it will happen billions of years from now, says Joe Lykken, who spoke recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The Wheaton resident has worked at Fermilab for 20 years. He is affiliated with the Compact Muon Spectrometer experiment; Fermilab is the U.S. headquarters for the CERN-based effort.
Physicists theorize that the Higgs boson is a particle that gives mass to matter, as the matter passes through the Higgs energy field. With mass, gravity can then act on the matter. Last July, scientists announced they were somewhat convinced that they have proved the existence of the Higgs boson.
That discovery would help "nail down properties of the field," Lykken said. And cosmologists are asking, what do the particle and the field have to do with the start, present and future of this universe?
Not so stable
The universe has been believed to be stable, because it has been in existence 13 billion years, Lykken said. On a graph juxtaposing energy vs. the strength of the Higgs field, the universe has been close to a low point in a valley, and seems to like it there. Scientists thought it was "boring," Lykken said, just eternally expanding, with stuff getting farther and farther apart.
But measurements of the Higgs boson's mass seem to show that it is just the right weight to indicate the universe is unstable, he said.
"Why Nature gave us a boson on the verge of stability vs. instability" is a good question, he said. If the calculation is correct, the universe wants to, and will, turn into something else.
That's a big if. It depends on whether the laws of physics we now believe are correct. It also depends on whether scientists have gotten the measurement of the boson's characteristics correct.
Into the dark
And there are the big unknowns. Do dark matter and dark energy (an invisible energy field) have any effect on this?
"My guess is they are (relevant)," Lykken said. Fermilab is involved in two experiments exploring dark matter and dark energy.
Going forward, people will want to know what this tells us about the beginning of the universe. It may also lend understanding to how the Higgs boson "talks" to other particles. And that goes back to Fermilab's legendary discovery of the heavy, top quark, in the 1990s.
"This calculation depends knowing precisely of the mass of the top quark. The Higgs talks to the top quark more strongly than (it does) to any other particle," Lykken said. Because of that, "We (Fermilab) are big players."
Scientists will try to produce more Higgs bosons, and measure their properties to be more accurate.
Meaning for life
Lykken has been the subject of ribbing from his colleagues, who end meetings now by saying, "Assuming that the universe doesn't end tomorrow, we'll ..." He has also started receiving "strange" emails from the public, with their ideas about the end of the universe, he said.
The good news is there is nothing we can do to cause the end, he said. And so far there is no evidence the process has started.
But when it does, it will proceed at the speed of light. "It will hit and kill you" before you know what's happening, he said.
"If people are still here in 10 billion years, then they can worry," he said.