Warning: you must have a sense of humour to read this.
We step away from finance and get into the weird and wonderful world of astrophysics. After such a tumultuous year, what a more befitting way to finish 2020 than with a holiday special on "the end of the Universe"?
We know this is not the most festive topic but we’ve tried to add a positive spin on it. At least we thought this would be a good way of putting 2020 into perspective.
What does the end look like?
There are lots of possible endings, some might say infinite, but we’ll focus on the top 5 mainstream theories which are:
- Elemental Particle Bath
- Boltzmann Brain Argument
- The Big Crunch
- The Big Rip
- Higgs Felt it's Time to Go
1. Elemental Particle Bath
This theory is not really what the end of the universe deserves so we thought we'd get this out of the way first. It's also a bit of a red herring as it's merely all the 'stuff' in the universe that will cease to exist, but space and time will continue.
In this scenario, the universe, rather disappointingly, just gets old and 'things' will start to break. The first notable example for us humans will be in 7.5 billion years when the Sun absorbs the Earth during its difficult Red Giant phase of life.
Slightly further down the road somewhere between 1012 and 1014 (1-100 trillion) years into its existence, the universe will start to run out of gas and stars will cease to form.
Even more grim news I’m afraid, in 1034 (ish) years, protons will give up and the decay will lead to the disintegration of complex matter leaving behind a bunch of black holes.
As the universe's rate of expansion is increasing, these black holes won't even have the decency to collide or anything cool like that. So the final chapter of this dull end takes place in 10100 (a googol) years as the blackholes leak their contents, through Hawking's radiation, into a cold and ever-expanding bath of elemental particles.
2. Boltzmann Brain Argument
The sequel to Elemental particle bath is set in an infinitely expanding universe and draws inspiration from those infinitely pesky monkeys and their typewriters. This theory suggests that the particles in the elemental soup previously mentioned, at some point in infinity, could arrange themselves in the exact same formation as your brain.
It's actually statistically more likely that I am a particle formation in the shape of a brain, hallucinating being sat here in my office. OK, we're back to monkeys typing…..
3. The Big Crunch
This is the ending Hollywood would like to see but according to science, it's the least likely. This theory is based on expansion running its course and space collapsing in on itself in a 'big crunch'.
All matter would begin to compress including, very importantly, all of the radiation. So, I’m afraid we would miss the awesome galaxy collisions as all the background light, of every star, that has ever shone would compress and incinerate planets in a horrific inferno.
It would be a definitive end though.
4. The big rip
The elusive dark energy that is behind the expansion of the universe just keeps getting stronger. To the point where it's not content with flinging galaxies into the void but starts to unpick planets, then atoms, subatomic particles and eventually spacetime itself. We couldn't find a specific date for when this might happen so if we can get to the end of 2020, (the year when this sort of thing would most likely happen) we can assume we're all good.
5. Higgs felt it's time to go
The Higgs field, co-incidentally discovered by Peter Higgs, is curious as it takes less energy to have a non-zero value than a zero value. I have met a few of these energy vampires throughout my life and they are not fun. If by chance this field were to decay over time or a property was slightly out, it would create a bubble called a “true vacuum” that would swallow up everything around it. This could very rapidly lead to the end of the universe as we know it. Thank you LHC for getting that one right.
The upside with this ending is that you would have no idea it was coming as the vacuum travels at the speed of light consuming everything in its path including gravity.
Is there a happy ending?
Yes. It's highly unlikely humans will be around for any of these scenarios.
Is that it?
If you believe in expansion, at some point distant galaxies will be pushed away from us faster than the speed of light. Our descendants, millions of years in the future, will not be able to observe the “mythological universe” of the past and based on their data will conclude the universe consists of one galaxy and they are at the centre of it. So, at this point in time, we have more observable data and better information than future mankind (although they probably will have the hover boards Michael J Fox promised us all those years ago).
The Happy Hour
2020 has been a tough year, but in light of this article I think it’s fair to say that we’re living through the Happy Hour of the Universe. We’re able to observe the early formation of the universe and make reasonable predictions about its future. We can experience love, happiness, fear, joy and all the other emotions that makeup life. Carl Sagan summed it up well when he said: "We are a way for the universe to know itself".
So soak up the good and the bad and know that you are living in the Universe's best life.