Sunday, 19 September 2010

How To Destroy The Universe - A Beginners Guide

Firstly, it should be pointed out that destroying the Universe is considered to be a little anti-social in many quarters, and may even be illegal under your local laws.  Please obtain professional legal advice before attempting it.

Secondly, you're not going to need the Large Hadron Collider.  Let's make it clear from the outset: the LHC simply isn't up to the job, and by many, many orders of magnitude.  Using the LHC to do what I'm going to suggest is like trying to set off a nuclear explosion with a small lump of Uranium ore and a toffee hammer, it simply isn't going to happen.

So with the obvious warnings out of the way, how are we going to destroy the entire Universe?  Simply blowing up a star or two isn't going to do it.  In fact, blowing up all the stars isn't going to do it, despite Steven Moffat's best effort in the last season of Doctor Who.  Even if you could make every star go supernova at once, the Universe would still be there...OK, it would be a Universe full of dust and ashes rather that stars, but it would still be there.  We're going to need a much bigger bang.

The bang we're looking for is something called 'vacuum decay', and it has nothing to do with household appliances.  A vacuum, to a physicist, is a rather complicated thing.  It's exactly what you're thinking of - an absence of matter, a space that contains no atoms, no molecules.  In the middle of the last century, however, it became apparent that a vacuum is never really empty, quite the opposite in fact.  A vacuum, even the most perfect one you can imagine, is a bit busy.  There's space and time for starters, and a plethora of 'virtual particles' popping in and out of existence the whole time...on the smallest scales a vacuum is a seething mass of weirdness.

All of this weirdness requires energy - even in particle physics, there's no such thing as a free lunch.  This energy is called, with remarkable clarity and lack of imagination, vacuum energy.  Depending on the theory you use to calculate it, the vacuum energy in a cubic centimetre of space is somewhere between 0.00000000000000000001 Joules and 1x10^107 Joules (a 1 with 107 zeros after it), so it's fairly safe to say there's a certain amount of uncertainty.

(As a point of reference it takes about 35,000 Joules to bring a litre of water to the boil)

Whatever the actual value is, the point is that empty space has energy.  There's no particularly good reason why our Universe has the amount of vacuum energy it does, in fact it could have values far outside our (already uncertain) estimates, and therein lies our method for destroying everything.

Now, not content with throwing some big numbers around, I'm going to drop a graph into the mix as well.  Don't Panic.  If it helps you can think of it as a picture of a rollercoaster.  In fact it will probably help if you do, because I'm going to stick with the analogy.  Here it comes, hold tight....



What this shows is a completely made up graph of the possible amount of vacuum energy in the Universe.  We're the little red dot.  Now, imagine pushing the little red dot to one side or the other...it'll just roll back down to where it started.  Push it a bit harder though, and it'll roll over the peak to the right and settle in a new position in the second, lower dip to the right, and a lot of energy will be released in the process (equal to the difference in height between the two dips).  That's potentially a lot of energy.  If you can push one tiny bit of the Universe, a sphere of just a few hundred metres in diameter, over the peak then it gives off enough energy to push the space around it over the edge, which pushes the space around that over the edge, and you have a bit of a chain reaction on the go. 

The bubble expands at nearly the speed of light, and inside it everything changes.  The very laws of physics, and by association those of chemistry and biology, alter, and not in a good way.

...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 structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated. 
Coleman & de Luccia

 Voila, we've destroyed the Universe, at least as far as we currently understand it.  So how do we do it in practice?  Well, we need a very high energy density, something like a very, very big bomb to push it over the edge.  This was one of the "risks" associated with the LHC by people who didn't quite get the numbers (or "twats" as Brian Cox refers to them) - the energy densities created by the LHC are indeed very high, but they're nowhere close to high enough.  How do we know when there's such uncertainty over how much vacuum energy the Universe has?  Well several times a day cosmic rays slam into the Earth's atmosphere with very much the same energy density as the LHC's experiments.  Once a month or so we get hit by a cosmic ray with far higher densities even than that, and every decade or so there's a truly exceptional event which surpasses the LHC by hundreds of times.  None of these events seems to have triggered vacuum decay, after all, we're still here.  (So why have we spent so much on the LHC when nature regularly beats the pants off it?  Well the whole point is, in effect, to take a photo of the event with a very big digital camera, and we never know where and when the natural events will happen.)

Supernova, black holes merging, even gamma ray bursters, the most violent explosions ever observed, have so far failed to tip us over the peak and destroy the Universe, so we're going to have to dream up something else, an even bigger bang.

Which brings us to a curious little post-script, one best illustrated by a quote from Douglas Adams:
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
 What if we're in a Universe where vacuum decay has already happened?  From the inside of the bubble it would look very much like a Big Bang....

18 comments:

  1. Vaccumn decay, eh? Hmm... Somehow, I don't think that God would allow the human race the ability to destroy the entire universe. Sure, we can trash our own stupid little planet, maybe even take out a nic chunk of the Milky Way with us, but God's not going to let us wreck the rest of his project.

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    1. Ah, but didn't God vanish in a puff of logic when the Babelfish came into being?

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    2. Funny how you believe that God would give us some power, but not all. "no no no, this toy is for adults"
      I'm a catholic, but your logic is plain wrong in the world filled with death and destruction. Also isn't it said in the book of Genesis that God gave everything to the human to rule? That basically means we can use the universe as our playground and it exists for the sole purpose of entertaining us.

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    3. If God would have given us the chance to have the power to destroy the universe, we would certainly destroy it. We can choose how to live and what to feel until we give in to accept his will.

      That thing called free will is wrongfully exaggerated by humans to think that they have actually control, just to feel comfortability.

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  2. Why does it have to be a large sphere? A tiny nucleation event could cause the same reaction. On a side note my family disagrees with my desire to end everything.

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  3. in this theory you are stating that another bang would destroy the universe.
    But if you look at the "Big Bang" theory the universe was created by what you think could destroy it right now.
    wouldn't it be then recreated due to the collision of matter and molecules thus recreating a new combined element and a far more complicated location? This thing sir could be just creating a much more vast universe that could withstand the first procedure.
    So basically it "could" be impossible to completely destroy the universe.

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  4. @ Anon (17th Oct):

    Yes, you're pretty much right. Maybe I should have phrased it as "how to destroy the Universe...as we know it". Yes, vacuum decay might shuffle the physical constants and/or spacetime geometry around, and even the laws of physics as we know them might change, but there would still be something there afterwards. Probably not a universe anything like ours, but there is a chance that mass/energy would be conserved in some form.

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  5. hey im spaceman. i like your idea about causing artificial phase shift but im thinking bigger for the energy sources. you should consider multiverse theory. The intense gravity that might be leaking to us in one would be more than enough to have your way with the visible universe, maybe we slam between two membranes of other universes. maybe enought to pop our little bubble. im tired of this universe anyways so how to get to another one?

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  6. "listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go "
    ~ E.E. Cummings

    The idea with the "vanilla" theory of vacuum decay is that the energy is already here, tied up in empty space (which isn't really empty at all).

    You're right of course, there's a lot of very strange theories floating around ("there's speculation, wild speculation, and cosmology" as someone once said), and if science keeps doing what it's always done then we'll probably throw most of them out and find that the remaining ones are all inter-related anyway.

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  7. or you could just EXPLODE EVERY THING WITH 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 (thats not the full number, but oh well) MEGAtones of antimater

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    1. Well, actually, no. You wouldn't need that much. To destroy the WHOLE universe, you'd need quite a bit, but an amount the size of a lightbulb could boil Earth's oceans, so I doubt you'd need 99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 megatons

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  8. and you might take out some other universes as well

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  9. I suppose you could find a way of instantaneously converting all the matter in the universe to energy (the whole E=mc^2 thing), and if you did the entire universe would consist of photons. All photons cover a spacetime interval of zero, so you'd have something that looked very much like a Big Bang singularity, just a bunch of energy and no meaningful spacetime coordinate system.

    Nice idea - not sure you got anywhere enough 9's in it, but a nice idea nonetheless.

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  10. We should focus on how to destroy the entire universe.
    This universe Physics Laws are to much entropic. That's why this is an evil and cruel existence where everything gets old and dies. Where everything fights to survive, where everything eats the less powefuls.
    I believe that Transmutalism is not possible in this kind of universe so, the nihil, the nothing is preferable unless we could create another universe with more life oriented physics laws.
    Maybe the antimatter bomb could be the solution to annihilate this universe but HOW to make it?? It should have the enough critical mass to destroy the whole universe or it will be a failure.

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  11. The biggest anti-matter bomb you can imagine has already gone off. The Big Bang produced almost perfectly equal amounts of matter and antimatter together, and then they annihilated each other. There's a subtle asymmetry in the laws of physics however, which means that there was *ever so slightly* more of one than the other - just a whisp of stuff. That's what makes up all the matter in the Universe today.

    So blowing up the universe with antimatter isn't going to destroy it, it just moves stuff around a bit. The universe already tried, in a way that is so much bigger you need special characters to write the numbers down.

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  12. 3 alternate ways to end the universe;
    #1 Divide by 0.
    #2 Mix M'Ms and Skittles.
    #3 Be Human.

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  13. i think that the theory where someone figures it out and it's replaced by a more complex thing has already happened, hundreds of thousands of billions of billions of times, and now it is just so complex that people don't even live long enough to figure out everything

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