Scientists studying data from the Large Hadron Collider have some bad news – their calculations suggest our universe will end catastrophically, devoured from within by a vacuum bubble expanding at the speed of light, destroying everything in its path.
Last year amid much fanfare, scientists said they had discovered a particle they believe is the Higgs boson, a previously missing link in the Standard Model of physics which gives particles mass. Further research backed up this theory, and as scientists learn more about it, the implications are becoming clear.
"If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news," says Joseph Lykken, theoretical physicist with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, who is also on the LHC team.
"It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out."
The calculation rests on the mass of the particle believed to be the Higgs boson, which is about 126 billion electron volts. This happens to be within 1 percent of the figure required to bring about the expanding vacuum bubble apocalypse, reports LiveScience.
"This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now, there'll be a catastrophe… What happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny bubble of the vacuum the universe really wants to be in," Dr Lykken told the BBC, "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 good news is it will expand at the speed of light, meaning anyone around when it happens won't see it coming.
"The mass of the Higgs is related to how stable the vacuum is," says theoretical physicist Christopher Hill, also based at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. "It's right along the critical line. That could either be a cosmic coincidence, or it could be that there's some physics that's causing that. That's something new, which we didn't know before."
If the particle's mass was only slightly different, and other subatomic particles also had differing masses – the universe's fate would be completely different.
"You change any of these parameters to the Standard Model by a tiny bit and you get a different end of the universe," says Dr Lyyken.
The Large Hadron Collider is currently offline for upgrades and repairs, but research into the Higgs boson continues.
"When we start running in 2015, we will be at a higher energy, which will mean we'll get more data on the Higgs and other particles to open up a larger window of opportunity for discovery," Howard Gordon, from the Brookhaven National Laboratory told the BBC.
Dr Lykken says the bubble scenario revives the idea that the universe is "cyclical" in nature.
"It's much easier to explain a lot of things if what we see is a cycle. If I were to bet my own money on it, I'd bet the cyclic idea is right."