A theoretically possible doomsday event.

The end of the world is nigh

I'm probably described well as a staunch sceptic. Certainly, you will not find me with a sandwich-board on the street corner toting the word's "Repent! The end of the world is nigh!"

Nor do I care a hoot about the Mayan calendar, planetary alignment, astrology, ghosts, religious apocalypse, hell, witchcraft, karma, reincarnation or voodoo.

But at least two things can't be dismissed.

The most likely, in fact with near certainty at some point a massive comet or asteroid will hit the Earth, as it has done in the past. The second is a little more interesting, very speculative, but also theoretically possible.

It is called a local minimum.


Quantum tunnelling from a local to a true minimum.

The local minimum is stable for classical particles but night be unstable to a quantum particle that just happens to tunnel through to the true minimum.
The local minimum is stable for classical particles but night be unstable to a quantum particle that just happens to tunnel through to the true minimum.

What is a local minumum?

A local minimum is a stable configuration, but not necessarily the lowest-energy stable configuration. A true stable minimum requires external energy to move it out of stability, and hold it out of stability. A local minimum is a fool's minimum. It's the kind of stability that can be lost from an unfortunate nudge. A good example of this is a penny stood on-edge.

A penny stood on edge is stable until a little extra energy is added to the system that pushes it up over onto the corner after which it collapses to a true minimum, from which there is no return. You can easily imagine that a penny cannot spontaneously jump back to be on edge without a big shake and a boat-full of luck.

Quantum tunneling

You will probably have heard the term 'quantum' this and 'quantum' that. It's the world of the very small. Unfortunately, doofus somewhere in business-land or Hollywood decided that 'quantum leap' was a very big step. That's a shame. It confuses people.

The quantum arena we are discussing now is at the scale of atoms and smaller. At this scale, very weird and unfamiliar things happen. It's not just theory either. For example, we have experiments that prove that an electron can be prepared in any orientation and yet only be measured in one of two states. The mathematical conclusions drawn from these experiments is like saying that the electron is in all states at the same time until measured. This is just one example of quantum weirdness.

Another example is how an electron is shown to be a particle that also behaves like a wave. This seems contradictory, and it certainly is on the scales that you and I operate. However, at the quantum scale, the position and momentum of an electron are mutually separated statistics. If you measure the position accurately, then its momentum is very inaccurate, and vice versa. The conclusion from the maths involved, and from experiments is that an electron is somehow spread out even though it acts like a particle.

Confused? Don't worry. No-one really understands it, but these are real facts.

There is a device available from the electronic shops called a tunnel-diode. You can buy one for a dollar or so. It is a special electronic part because it is a true practical exploitation of something called quantum tunnelling. So what is this? Because an electron is spread out, under the right conditions, there is a non-zero, and significant probability that it can be found on the other side of an energy barrier.

Although I hate classical analogies to quantum phenomena, the following seems acceptable just to bring-home the enormity of the possibility how the world just might end one day:

Imagine that penny, stood on end. Then, for no reason, and without a breath of externally applied force, it is suddenly found to be flat on the table. That's sort of what happens sometimes to an electron that is contained in a local minimum. Because of it's wave-like nature, and non-localised position, it can 'tunnel' through the barrier and carry on its merry way.

The tunnel-diode is a real device. Remember this...

The quantum vacuum

Empty space is far from empty.

Let's take the electromagnetic force. (i.e. light) because it is familiar. The force-carrier for the electromagnetic force is called the photon. There should be no surprises there.

However, what many people will not know is that the photon has infinite range, and there are also things called virtual photons. These virtual photons have very short lifetimes, they permeate the vacuum of space, and they are very short-range. Virtual photons are accompanied by lots of other virtual particles, like virtual electrons and so on. Again, there are experiments that infer their existence and we consider this good scientific theory despite it's craziness.

This popping crackling quantum vacuum has a pressure, and an energy level. It is considered to be a minimum energy level, and therefore stable. For example, liquid helium does not freeze under atmospheric pressure at any temperature because of its zero-point energy. The zero-point energy and the quantum vacuum is a direct consequence of the wave-like nature of tiny particles, as is quantum tunnelling.

The false vacuum.

It's theoretically possible that the zero-point energy that we measure is a real minimum, but there is no particular reason to believe it cannot just be a local minimum - like the penny on edge.

Certain formulations of quantum theory permit there to be another lower-energy state but the universe is balanced currently at something a little higher in a local-minimum.

Nucleation

Nucleation happens to boiling water. If pure water is raised in a perfectly clean glass to above 100 0C it will not boil. But if a single contaminating speck of dust lands in it, the whole lot will burst into a bubbling mixture. This is nucleation, and is another example of a local minimum. The clean water won't boil because there is nothing to start the process. The speck of dust provides a nucleation point out of which a chain-reaction is born.

kaaaa-bloom!

What if...

Just what if, our universe is in a local minimum? What if the measured zero-point vacuum energy level is a local minimum? It's theoretically possible that a single quantum tunnelling event could nucleate a move to a new and true minimum. This would spread out at light speed without warning, and with it would come new physical constants. Chemistry as we know it would vanish, and there could be no way back and like a long row of dominoes, all of space would tumble to the new state, never to return.

Who knows - this may have already happened billions of light years from here, beyond the edge of the observable universe, inexorably heading towards us (in a few billion years). Or it could happen on the end of the sandwich-board man's nose tomorrow.

Eat that sandwich, apocalypse-board man!

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Comments 33 comments

SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA

Thank you. It makes one think less about Hub statistics ;-).


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

LOL - that it does!


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

I'm not going to worry about that until we know a LOT more about physics :-)


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

That does it. I'm throwing out every penny I have.

I am going to link this hub to my current Maya 2012 series of hubs if you don't mind. The flying spaghetti monster only knows what is going to come out of that crazy galactic plane/sun/earth alignment.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

Did you really mean an electron is a wave or a particle, or did you mean a Photon.

The penny example defies the A Body at Rest Tends to Remain at Rest unless affected by an outside force rule.

The other fact about boiling water is that Water can be at 100 degrees C without boiling and Steam is also at that temperature.

The same temperature but the steam has 512 more calories.

Although it is still an interesting fact about pure water properties.

As far as the doom prediction, anything is possible when you don't have control over the process or even how the process works.

We still don't have a Grand Unification Theory to help us here.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Hi ib radmasters, all particles have a wave function. So you can perform the double-slit experiment on electrons or photons and get the same conclusions.

The penny example does defy Newtons laws - which is why I hate using classical analogies for quantum behaviour. But that's why I gave the stern warning. It was meant only to highlight the weirdness of the quantum scale.

Yes - that's true about steam and temperature. I don't follow the calories conclusion, can you explain why?

@Austinstar - thanks for the link - Can I link back?

@Pcunix - Yes - if we live in a false vacuum, then a re-settling of the zero point energy is obviously a tremendously unlikely event.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Certainly you can link back. I almost wrote to you this morning whilst I was trying to do some Mayan calendar arithmetic. I had to get a little creative to make it balance out, but I finally did. Glad I have a calculator on this computer.

Anyway, the local minimum and quantum tunneling could possibly explain the Mayan doomsday "prophecy". Thanks for that, now I'm getting worried.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

Manna

Aren't Photons the classical test for wave or particle because we don't really understand them as we do electrons.

To convert water at 212 degrees Fahrenheit to steam which is also 212 degrees F, 512 calories have to be added to make the change of state.

Just as water at 32 degrees F need to lose 90 calories to change to Ice at 32 degrees F.

On the Mayan Calendar where is the prophecy. The calendar was much too long for them as they disappeared. Maybe if they were still around we could ask them about their prophecy.

Interesting hub


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 4 years ago from Eden

Geez, I hadn't thought of that--yet one more thing to worry about!


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

@Ib radmasters - The Mayans ARE still here and we HAVE asked them. They say that the long count calendar starts over at 13.0.0.0.0 on 12/21/2012 - the winter solstice. There is no "prophecy" or "doomsday event". It's all hype by the white guys.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

It certainly is hype Austinstar about the Mayan Calendar, and I don't think they would have had a hint about the false vacuum!

Joyus: I ain't gunna loose sleep over it considering an uncountable number of quantum events that have happened in the last 14 billion years...

ib radmasters: We understand photons and electrons very well. In fact, Quantum Electro Dynamics describes all of physics outside the nucleus, and excepting gravity to a very good precision. To go inside the nucleus, you need QCD and the standard model, and then probably SUSY theories, and then to include a quantum gravity, you need, well, something more. That might be string theory or something else that we don't know about.


Joyus Crynoid profile image

Joyus Crynoid 4 years ago from Eden

Indeed. I admit I am less worried about this than I am about an asteroid impact or gamma ray burst from a nearby supernova. And far, far less worried about any of those things than about what human beings are doing to the biosphere.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

How true and how sad Joyus. We are patently destroying ourselves and we are just so apathetic about it. I don't get it. Doesn't anyone want to breathe clean air anymore? Or drink clean water? By the time the world as a whole realizes what we have done to our planet, it will be too late. It's sad.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

But "excepting gravity" is a rather big exception, no?

Look, I have no doubt that physics is getting closer to truth and probably has a very high percentage of "correctness" in it now. But until all theory squares up and it all makes coherent sense, we really can't be sure of anything.

Now that's "not sure" as in tiny little gaps that probably will turn out to be mostly unimportant, but every now and then amazing things pop out of tiny gaps. I don't expect us to develop antigravity machines or travel back in time, but we might well develop things just as astonishing as we round off the rough edges of our understanding.

In the same spirit, I get annoyed when someone says that something must be true because of physics. Yeah, sure, it's PROBABLY true and the chances of it not being true might be vanishingly small, but absolute statements without a coherent understanding annoy me. Not a lot, but just a little. I'm not a "those pointy head scientists don't know anything guy" but I am a "some of those guys act like they know more than they really do".


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

On the pollution stuff: I got spitting mad in the forums recently on the subject of ocean pollution. One of the resident right wingers dismissed it as a liberal lie - even going so far as to say that restricting fishing was damaging fish by "weakening" them.

Such incredible ignorance makes me want to scream, but what made me even angrier is that I was the only person who objected. There were plenty of other people reading and commenting in that thread, but they all went silent right then. It disgusts me.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Pcunix - You KNOW they can't do without their sushi! Over population and over fishing/mining/hunting/etc. Are killing the planet. But most people just go merrily along popping out human litters and never, ever worry about things.

On the other thing, gravity will be conquered one day and I'm thinking pretty soon. It's a lost art. The Moai 'walked', so I'm guessing it's possible to invent an anti-gravity device.

On time travel - well, if we invented time travel in the future, then there should be some evidence of it in the past since they would have already gone back in time even though they don't exist yet! This is funny to me. I don't think time travel is possible, but hey, I've been wrong about some other things.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Pcunix: that gravity is not understood is a huge exception of course, and the accuracy of GR aside an inability to reconcile it with QCD is profound. Both theories work incredibly well, yet both must be incomplete.

My 2c: Anti-gravity? No , time travel? forward in time only. New inventions and understanding yet to come? No doubt. At one time, physicists had a kind of apathetic "It's time to pack our bags" approach as it became as if there was little more to learn, but in the last couple of decades, it's become obvious that there are even more wonders to work out.

"The most important principle of 20th-century physics is that all observable properties of things are about relationships." - Lee Smolin.

One statement that is simple but profound is "There exists nothing outside the universe". What is the evaluation? True or False?

If True (Which depends on the understanding and defintion of 'universe'), then it raises the question, "Can we evaluate it completely?" --because we are *in* the system and can neither experiment nor theorise and verify as if outside the system. This of course knocks the idea of an inside-creator for six simply from the very definition of the term 'universe'.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

@Pcunix: "On the pollution stuff: I got spitting mad in the forums recently on the subject of ocean pollution."

Good.


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

I found your hub really interesting, though I found it a little difficult to wrap my brain around some of it. Maybe I'm just resisting the thought of a sudden end of the world, and your logic makes too much sense! Thanks a lot! :)

Like Pcunix and Austinstar, I worry a lot about ocean pollution, loss of clean water and destruction of our environment that seems to be looming closer each day.

@pcunix - I don't read forums often or I would have supported you! :)

You've certainly started some great conversations here!


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks Stephanie, I would not lose sleep over it - it's theoretical, speculative, and unlikely.

Two ticks for the ocean pollution concern - especially that Texas-sized swirl of plastic we hear about.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Yea, I wish people would quit describing that plastic garbage island in the Pacific as "Texas" sized. By now it's probably "Aussie" sized (grin). Why do people feel the need to throw their garbage where we live? The planet is being carpeted by our garbage.

Just like a human to crap in their own home.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

You must admit though that Texas has cornered the market on 'big'.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

Manna

Did we forget about Alaska?

I don't know about the rest of you, but we have three bins, one for trash, one for recycle and one for yard waste.

The trash bin is almost empty, while the recycle is usually full, and most of the time so is the year waste.

What I would like to see is some positive feedback from the government about how our recycle efforts are working out. I would especially like to know how well the governments, federal, state, and local are handling the recycle effort.

There has been some developments on making fuel out of trash and waste materials. Remember garbage is now our most important resource. lol


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Let's bury it, compact it and in 5 billion years or so, we'll have all the oil we could ever want!

Texas is rather big, but Dallas was the one that started the "Big D" rumor. I prefer to think of them as Dal-assians.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

@ib radmasters: Sometimes I wonder about the life-cycle costs of recycling. It would be nice to get some real figures, and then compare that to methane recovery.

@Austinstar: Burying it is not too bad a solution provided toxic leaching can't happen. Here is an interesting calculation as a challenge: How big a hole would you need to dig each year to bury 7 billion human's waste products? (Assuming for the sake of argument that it's all in one place).


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

It's a surprisingly small hole..


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

@Pcunix Yes!


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

A hole as big as Texas?


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

Nope, much smaller than Texas :)


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Ok, I give up, how big would it have to be? And I suppose the hole would have to grow exponentially with the increasing population, right?


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

Here's a clue: Some estimates say that each American generates about 4.5 cubic feet (compacted) a year. Americans are probably among the worst offenders (Mexico is too) , but even here recycling has improved in recent years, so that might be high.

I think Manna should write a hub about this because the calculations are interesting as well as the logistics - seepage, possible slip-stream recycling etc.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Gather the world's population figures. Estimate how much waste each country would use compared to some benchmark - e.g. America (seeing as there is a figure from pcunix). Weight each country against the benchmark, and go for a first approximation in cubic feet. From then on, as pcunix states, it could get more complex depending on what you want to model.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

Some personal evidence of recycling: we used to put out up to three trash barrels per wek of uncompacted stuff. After the kids left, that dropped to one plus a little of the second.

When we moved to our present home, they provide very large barrels, so one would do it, but sometimes the lid was forced open. Then recycling started and now that one barrel is at most half full and often less.

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