Desperate for our attention, as ever, more like a b-list celeb with a book to plug than a respectable theoretical elementary particle, the Higgs Boson is back in the news.
Of course by now we’re used to the way The Higgs operates. Everyone’s standing around, talking quietly in small groups, a glass of wine in one hand, perhaps some Ferrero Rocher doing the rounds. And in he swans. The Higgs. That’s how he talks about himself, third person, definite article. Like the Fonz, only without the leather.
There’s nothing subtle about The Higgs. He might have been hiding under a rock since time began but now he’s out he’s all about, well, himself. Sure, he’s small, but everything’s got to be extreme with this guy. Astonishing speeds, ridiculous temperatures, mind-boggling quantities of energy. And that’s just to find him. Tarantino’s crashed the ambassador’s cocktail party and he wants everybody to know he’s here.
Higgs got a nasty surprise, though, last year. At the very moment of his crowning glory. His premiere, if you will. After all that time, finally, with the entire world watching and waiting, strolling down the red carpet, posing for the paparazzi, high-fiving a disreputable quark or two, silently thanking all creation for the Large Hadron Collider that finally tracked him down (tentatively).
And then the LHC shut down. Sure, it’s just a couple of years, and when you’ve been waiting since the dawn of time a couple of years isn’t something you’d even notice in the ordinary run of things. But it’s not the ordinary run of things. Higgs – sorry, The Higgs – had just started getting used to the fame. Rather liking it, actually. And what about his fans?
I don’t know whose idea this latest story is. Maybe he thought it all up on his own. Maybe he has a publicist, a quantum Max Clifford. Either way, he’s pretty sure to make an impact. Remember me? The new kid on the subatomic block you loved one moment and forgot about the next? Wondering what I’ve been up to since that embarrassing experiment with I’m a Theoretical Quantum Particle Get Me Out of Here? Well I’m back. And I’ve got the end of the universe with me. Not so theoretical now, eh?
He’s thought about his image, though. So you don’t need to worry about it. You’ll be long gone, say the scientists. It’s like a “Restaurant at the End of the Universe” end of the universe. A big bang about as far away as a big bang can get.
Except something’s nagging at the back of my mind. I hunt down a book I haven’t read for fifteen years, because I don’t read a lot about the energy levels of vacuums and I know I’ve seen something about this before.
That’s right. Here it is. Theoretical end of the universe through the decay of our “false” vacuum into a true, lower energy vacuum. To quote Michael Turner and Frank Wilczek, who know a hell of a lot more about this than I ever will, “without warning a bubble of true vacuum could nucleate somewhere in the Universe and move outwards at the speed of light.”
The speed of light.
The past light cone.
Forget billions of years time. For all we know, the whole thing could have happened already and because it’s travelling at us at the speed of light, we won’t know until it hits us.
Now, I don’t want to alarm you, and I’m sure we’ll all die from more localised environmental catastrophes long before the true vacuum rears its ugly head. But you never know.
So yeah, we know who you are, Higgs. We remember you alright. Thanks for that. I hope it was worth it.
If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.