An artist's conception visualizes the beginning of the universe in the big bang — or could it be the end of the universe?
BOSTON — If the "Higgs-like particle" discovered last year is really the long-sought Higgs boson, the bad news is that its mass suggests the universe will end in a fast-spreading bubble of doom. The good news? It'll probably be tens of billions of years before that particular doomsday arrives.
That's one of the weirder twists coming out of the continuing analysis of results from Europe's Large Hadron Collider, which produced the first solid evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson last year. Current theory holds that the Higgs boson plays a role in imparting mass to other fundamental particles. Confirming the discovery of the Higgs would fill in the last blank spot in that theory, known as the Standard Model.
Physicists discussed the state of the Higgs quest in Boston on Monday during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
So far, the particle that was found at the LHC fits all the requirements for the Higgs boson, but scientists aren't quite ready to confirm that the particle is really, truly the Higgs boson. It could be, say, just the first of multiple particles involved in the process. "The door is still very much open that there's [another] particle that has a role to play, or even more than that," said Christopher Hill, a physicist at Ohio State University who is also deputy physics coordinator for the LHC's Compact Muon Solenoid experiment.
The LHC has just started a two-year shutdown for equipment upgrades — and Howard Gordon, deputy chair of the physics program at Brookhaven National Laboratory, said "it's going to take another few years" after the collider is restarted to confirm definitively that the newfound particle is the Higgs boson.
In the meantime, physicists have tightened their estimates of the particle's mass: Hill said the current estimate from the Compact Muon Solenoid is 125.8 billion electron volts, or 125.8 GeV, plus or minus 0.6 GeV. The figure from the LHC's other Higgs-boson detector, known as ATLAS, is 125.2 GeV, plus or minus 0.7 GeV.
Those figures can be factored into equations that point to the long-term fate of the universe, said Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab.
So what's the outlook?
"If you use all the physics that we know now, and we do what we think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news," Lykken said. "It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable. At some point, billions of years from now, it's all going to be wiped out."
He said the parameters for our universe, including the Higgs mass value as well as the mass of another subatomic particle known as the top quark, suggest that we're just at the edge of stability, in a "metastable" state. Physicists have been contemplating such a possibility for more than 30 years. Back in 1982, physicists Michael Turner and Frank Wilczek wrote in Nature that "without warning, a bubble of true vacuum could nucleate somewhere in the universe and move outwards at the speed of light, and before we realized what swept by us our protons would decay away."
Lykken put it slightly differently: "The universe wants to be in a different state, so eventually to realize that, a little bubble of what you might think of as an alternate universe will appear somewhere, and it will spread out and destroy us."
That alternate universe would be "much more boring," Lykken said. Which led him to ask a philosophical question: "Why do we live in a universe that's just on the edge of stability?" He wondered whether a universe has to be near the danger zone to produce galaxies, stars, planets ... and life.
Even Hill found it interesting that the parameters of particle physics put our universe right along the critical line. "That's something new, which we didn't know before, and which leads some of us to that there's something else coming," Hill said.
When Hill referred to "something else," he was talking about new discoveries in physics — not the end of the world. Lykken emphasized that it would be at least tens of billions of years before vacuum instability took hold.
"To get the exact number, we need more funding," he joked.
More about the fate of the universe:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.
First published February 18 2013, 3:02 PM