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4 Ways The Universe Might End

Written By

Jaime TrosperMarch 3, 2014

If theres one thing scientists love discussing more than the beginning of the universe, its the end.
There are literally hundreds of known stellar events that could obliterate the life on our planet before
we even knew what hit us. The meteor that touched down in Russia kind of cemented that fact;
however, the chances of Earth suffering a life-ending global catastrophe are actually rather slim.
But we know that it is coming. At the very least, it will happen when the sun transitions into a red
giant.
The end of everything else though, is a little bit more difficult to predict; however, that wont stop
scientists from speculating and theorizing. With this in mind, here are four popular theories on how
the universe might end.
Note: Astrophysicists believe that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on three things: 1) The
universes overall shape 2) Its density and 3) How much dark energy the universe is truly made of.
The first two scenarios hinge on the universe existing in a flat or open system (one that is
negatively curved, similar to the surface of a saddle.

4) The Big Rip


Im sure many of you are familiar with dark energy and, more specifically, the role it plays in the
accelerated expansion of the universe. One theory of how the universe could potentially end relies on
the assumption that the expansion of the universe will continue indefinitely until the galaxies, stars,
planets, and matter (potentially even the subatomic building blocks that comprise all matter) can no
longer hold themselves together; so they rip apart. This theory is called The Big Rip and it could
result in your next door neighbor (or cat) being ripped apart too.

See a larger image HERE (Credit: Discovery


Enterprise)
In this model, if the universes density is found to be less than critical density (the boundary value
between open models that expand forever, and closed models that re-collapse), the expansion of the
universe will continue, as well as the accelerating expansion that is driving the galaxies apart at high-
speeds. If the density of the universe ever becomes equal to its critical density, it will continue to
expand, but the expansion would eventually start to decrease gradually. Finally, if the critical density
were to become greater than the density of the universe, the expansion would halt and the universe
would start to collapse back in on itself, resulting in a gravitational singularity: one that could
ultimately trigger the next big bang.
According to Robert Caldwell, a professional from Dartmouth college, if the big rip won out over all
of the apocalyptic scenarios put forth in this piece, the event would occur in some odd 22 billion
years, when the sun has already transitioned from a main-sequence star to a red-giant, potentially
incinerating Earth as a result, and turned into a white dwarf.
But if Earth did manage to survive intact, the planet would explode about 30 minutes before the
grand finale.

3: The Big Freeze


Another popular apocalyptic (which doesnt quite seem appropriate given the magnitude of the
implications) scenario for the end of the universe that relies on deciphering the true nature of dark
energy is The Big Freeze (also referred to as Heat Death or The Big Chill). In this scenario, the
universe continues to expand at an ever increasing speed. As this happens, the heat is dispersed
throughout space as clusters, galaxies, stars and planets are all pulled apart.
It will continue to get colder and colder until the temperature throughout the universe reaches
absolute zero (or a point at which, the universe can no longer be exploited to perform work).
Similarly, if the expansion of the universe continues, planets, stars and galaxies are pulled so far
apart that the stars would eventually lose access to raw material needed for star formation, thus the
lights inevitably go out for good.

Original
image credit: Melody Sundberg (Source)
This is the point at which the universe would reach a maximum state of entropy. Any stars that
remain will continue to slowly burn away, until the last star is extinguished. Instead of fiery cradles,
galaxies will become coffins filled with remnants of dead stars. It has been said in the very distant
future, that intelligent civilizations will someday truly into the sky and think they are alone.
Everything will be so far away, the light from distant stars and galaxies could never reach them, due
to the expansion of the universe.
Many astronomers and physicists alike believe this may be one of the most probable
scenarios thought up at the present moment.

2: The Big Crunch


The Big Crunch is thought to be the direct consequence of the Big Bang. In this model, the
expansion of the universe *doesnt* continue forever. After an undetermined amount of time
(possibly trillions of years), if the average density of the universe is enough to stop the expansion, the
universe will begin the process of collapsing in on itself. Eventually, all of the matter and particles in
existence will be pulled together into a super dense state (perhaps even into a black hole-like
singularity).
See the full
infographic here (Credit: NASA, ESA and STScI )
Furthermore, such an event might have already happened before. Some scientists have theorized
that the universe we see is the result of a cyclic repetition of the Big Bang, where the first
cosmological event came about after the collapse of a previous universe. This is something
called conformal cyclic cosmology.
Unlike the first two scenarios, this model relies on the geometry of the universe being closed (like
the surface of a sphere). Truly, an event like this would be like a single breath. The universe would
breathe out the Big Bang, and breathe in the Big Crunch. This could be due to either a reversal of
dark energys current expansion effect, or as the result of gravity collecting the entirety of spacetime
into a single point.
Similar to this theory (and the big bang), is that of the big bounce. A sort of symmetry is proposed
here; the universe is really in a continuous cycle of expanding out and then collapsing onto itself.
Effectively, we could be one of many iterations various other universe that once existed. And
perhaps even more eerie to think about, maybe each time the universe resets, it plays out the same
way. Perhaps the you that is currently reading this article right now is just one you out of
10^googleplex other yous that existed before. Still, the universe may be like the mythical phoenix.
In death, it is reborn.

1. The Big Slurp


An outsiders view of a false vacuum bubble that
formed and detached a true vacuum (Credit: Kamran Samimi)
I saved the best scenario (or worst, depending on your outlook) for last, the Big Slurp. This
theory surfaced not too long ago, after revelations were released about the true nature of the Higgs
Boson (most of you remember it as the particle believed to play a role in granting mass to elementary
particles).
In this model, if the Higgs boson particle weighs in at a certain mass, it could indicate that the
vacuum of our universe may be inherently unstable, perhaps existing in a perpetual metastable
statesomething that has been discussed at length many times before. If this were the case, our
universe might experience a catastrophic event when a bubble from another alternate universe
appears in ours. If said bubble exists in a lower-energy state than our bubble. the universe could be
completely annihilated.
I should note that this is disastrous because it could cause of all the protons in all matter found in
our universe to decay. By proxy, so would we. If that doesnt sound unpleasant enough, this sort of
a vacuum metastability event could happen at virtually any moment, anywhere in our universe. The
bubble could pop over and start expanding at light-speed until it swallows us entirely.

NONE OF THESE SCENARIOS SOUND VERY FUN.


Image by Jaime Trosper/FQTQ

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The Universe's Different Possible Endings

The picture at the left depicts the three possible endings for the
universe. Up until very recently (late 1990's) it was generally
accepted that the universe would end in a big crunch. While it was
known that the universe was expanding, scientists believed that
sooner or later the force of gravity would overtake any other forces
and the universe would begin to decelerate. This would eventually
lead to a Big Crunch billions of years from now.
Whether or not gravity took over was mathematically depicted by
the density parameter, Omega (). If was greater than one, then
gravity would win as portrayed above in the Big Crunch. However,
as scientists began to measure , it began to look like was very
close, if not equal to "1" (flat in mathematical terms). Using ground
based and balloon based instruments, scientists estimated that
was "1" plus or minus 15%. The WMAP satellite confirmed that
was one within 0.5%. This meant that the universe would decelerate
gradually approaching zero but never get there. The universe would
keep expanding forever but at a snail's pace forever slowing down,
but never stopping (depicted by the middle line in the chart).

In the late 1990's it was discovered that the universe was in fact
expanding at an accelerating rate. This fact threw all previous
theories out the window. No one could explain how such a
phenomenon could be happening without invoking an unknown
force called dark energy. Dark energy is a form of anti-gravity
working over large distances that is in the ultimate tug of war with
gravity. To this day we have no credible evidence of how this force
operates. However, it has been measured ever more accurately and
just about all scientists believe there is some type of dark force
operating in outer space. This remains one of the great mysteries of
our time.
If dark energy continues to push indefinitely, the universe will
expand faster and faster exponentially until ultimately it rips itself
apart. This is now called the Big Rip. Observations of the early
universe appear to support the theory that dark energy is a
universal, unchanging force. This means that if the dark energy
force has not changed over billions of years in the past, it is unlikely
to change in the future. So we can expect the universe to continue
to expand at an accelerated pace into the future. At some point our
galaxy will be alone in space, because all the other galaxies will
have traveled beyond the observational horizon and the only light
will be from our own galaxy stars.
Most Likely Universe Ending

No one knows for sure how the universe will end, but here is a
reasonable proposition. Assume that the Lambda Big Bang Model is
correct. Also assume that the shape of the universe (mathematically
speaking) is the infinite "flat" model ( = "1"). Accepting the
Lambda Big Bang Model, a flat universe, and the presence of dark
energy, then the universe will keep on expanding at an accelerated
rate forever, ultimately ending in a cold, dark state. Eventually, all
the stars will burn out, leaving stellar-mass objects as remnants, i.e.
white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes. Subsequently, the
stellar remnants (white dwarfs, neutron stars, and other smaller
astronomical objects) will themselves be destroyed by proton decay
(assuming that proton decay is real), leaving only black holes.
Finally, even black holes will disappear due to Hawking Radiation
leaving only a diluted gas of photons and leptons.
A well publicized 2003 paper on the Big Rip by Robert R. Caldwell of
Dartmouth University et al. gives a blow by blow description of the
Big Rip end of our Solar System:
60 million years before the end, the Milky Way begins to fly apart.
Three months before the end, planets fly away.
Thirty minutes before the end, the earth erupts.
One second before the end, atoms and their nuclei break apart.
The End!
Top

A RIP, A CRUNCH, A SLURP, A SAD WHIMPER? HOW WILL THE UNIVERSE


END...MAYBE?
by Feiryred 2015-07-18 05:30
The story so far:
In the beginning, the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded
as a bad move.
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
It has been said that the first three minutes of life are very
hazardous. I would add that the last three minutes are pretty dicey
as well. As far as life on Earth is concerned, there are a myriad
things that could wipe us out, from giant impacts, to gamma ray
bursts, aliens, and even ourselves. The death of the Universe itself
has long been a topic of conjecture not just among scientists, but
anyone with an enquiring mind at 3 am, usually accompanied by
intoxicating substances. There have been many theories kicking
around for years, if not decades concerning our Universe's eventual
demise, if indeed it in fact does meet its maker at all. It is a very
speculative question, but there are several contenders for what
could actually occur.
Cosmologists need further advances in fundamental physics before
it will be possible to know the ultimate fate of the Universe with any
level of certainty. However, scientists generally agree that this fate
will depend on three things: the Universes overall shape or
geometry(either flat, closed or saddle shaped/open)on how much
dark energy it contains, and on the so-called equation of state
(which essentially determines how the density of the dark energy
responds to the expansion of the universe).
Will there be a 'Big Crunch'? You can think of this as 'cosmic
recycling', it may even have happened before. The Universe
expanding, then contracting, collapsing in on itself and forming a
huge singularity which then produces a new Big Bang. This model
relies on the geometry of the universe being closed (like the
surface of a sphere). Truly, an event like this would be like a single
breath. The universe would breathe out the Big Bang, and breathe
in the Big Crunch.

Image credit:howstuffworks
The Big Freeze which is also known as 'heat death', or as I like to call
it, 'going out with a pathetic whimper.' Not my favourite scenario, I
think you can tell! This is what happens when the universe runs out
of energy. The entropy of the universe continuously increases until it
reaches a maximum value. It continues to endlessly expand until it
is flat. The moment that happens, heat in the system will be evenly
distributed, allowing no room for usable energy (or heat) to exist.
Basically, every star runs out of fuel and even black holes eventually
evaporate away. Frankly it sounds damn gloomy! Thankfully, if that
is what happens, it's a very long wait until that point.

The Big Slurp concerns that pesky Higgs Boson that has been
eluding us for years. The boson helps explain the existence of mass
in the cosmos. In other words, it underpins the workings of all the
matter we see around us.
"It turns out there's a calculation you can do in our Standard Model
of particle physics, once you know the mass of the Higgs boson,"
explained Dr Joseph Lykken. "If you use all the physics we know now,
and you do this straightforward calculation - it's bad news. What
happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny
bubble of the vacuum the Universe really wants to be in. And
because it's a lower-energy state, this bubble will then expand,
basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it," the
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory theoretician said. "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." Scary stuff. However, we need not panic for billions of years.
The Big Rip is not actually a new theory, having first been mooted
back in 2003, but has been gaining momentum recently in a
new paper by Assistant Professor of Mathematics Marcelo Disconzi in
collaboration with physics professors Thomas Kephart and Robert
Scherrer from Vanderbilt University. His new model tends to support
the alarming prospect of dark energy becoming stronger over time,
with the result that due to accelerated expansion the entire fabric of
space will be torn to shreds in an epically flamboyant fashion.
Image credit:Vanderbilt.edu
Dr Marcelo Disconzi, the mathematician who led the work at
Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said: The idea of the Big Rip is
that eventually even the constituents of matter would start
separating from each other. Youd be seeing all the atoms being
ripped apart ... its fair to say that its a dramatic scenario.
The only thing we definitely know is that the universe is expanding
and that the rate is accelerating, said Disconzi. Thats about the
only thing we know for sure. Since it is well-proven that nothing can
travel faster than the speed of light, a Big Rip scenario is a natural
consequence of the equations. The universe would vanish in front of
your eyes. Basically, you dont want to be around for it.
22 billion years is a comfortably long time away. I quite like this one
though, it seems like exactly the scenario I would want to watch
from my table at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the
Universe.
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.
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe