Welcome to the ekpyrotic universe

No money back, no guarantee.

Spurred on by their success with the Higgs boson, physicists have been studying the small print of the universe and it has given them quite a shock. It turns out that there’s a limited warranty: the cosmos may well vanish from existence at some unspecified point in the future. The only crumb of comfort is that, if it does, there’ll be another one along in a minute.

There is good reason to believe that the universe is a stretched rubber band, ready to ping back at a moment’s notice. More stable universes than ours, more akin to a rubber band sitting peacefully on a table, are possible. And the Higgs boson is at the heart of what turns one into the other.

The Higgs boson arises from a field – the Higgs field – that permeates space and time. You can think of it as elastic that runs through the Lycra of the universe. If it provides too much tension, space and time collapse in on themselves, causing the universe to scrunch up and disappear.

The elastic tension is related to the mass of the Higgs boson: the heavier the boson, the safer we are. However, the boson discovered at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva is not quite heavy enough: it’s only 98 per cent of the mass needed to safeguard the universe. That seemingly esoteric discovery made in Switzerland last year has serious historical implications, as it turns out. There may well have been a universe before ours and there’ll probably be one after it.

The standard cosmological story deals with only one universe, in which both time and space began at the Big Bang. Here, our best guess for the origin is that something (its other workings are known to us through quantum theory) created a bubble of energy from nothing. Eventually, this energy blew up to become time, space and matter.

Yet there is another possibility. The instability-inducing Higgs mass is a shot in the arm for a theory that has long been in the shadow of the standard Big Bang model of the universe. Proponents of the “ekpyrotic universe” theory (the word comes from the Greek for “born out of fire”) argue that there has been a succession of bangs and scrunches; the cataclysmic death of every universe brings forth a new one.

It’s not a vague, fanciful notion – it comes from the mathematics of string theory, in which the fundamental constituents of the universe are the result of packets of energy that pulsate in ten-dimensional space (OK, so it’s a bit fanciful). The theory suggests that something like our threedimensional universe can be created when two vast and multidimensional objects collide. The collision simultaneously destroys one universe and creates another.

The ekpyrotic universe model has been around for a while and remains widely unaccepted but there is much to recommend it. To make the standard Big Bang story fit with what we see in the cosmos, we have to introduce a few oddities. One is that the universe is peppered with dark matter, exotic stuff unlike anything else we know. There is also an unexplained source of dark energy: a mysterious force that is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up. Then there’s inflation, a force that made the universe 1060 times bigger in the tiny fraction of a millisecond just after the Big Bang.

However, the ekpyrotic universe doesn’t need a period of inflation and, unlike the standard Big Bang model, it can account for where the dark energy comes from. Now, it has support from the Higgs boson. So, enjoy your 21st-century, ecofriendly, self-recycling universe. Just don’t expect it to last.

A picture with a zoom effect show a grafic traces of proton-proton collisions events. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Selfie sticks mask a bigger problem we have with each other – interaction

New services and products, like selfie sticks, ensure we never have to look each other in the eye, or ask for a tiny favour.

Selfie sticks are the worst, there's no denying it. I was so close to having a selfie stick-free weekend wandering around London aimlessly. But I made the mistake of walking across Westminster Bridge and saw plenty in action. And who can blame Londoners and tourists wanting to frame themselves right next to views of parliament or the London Eye on the opposite side? I'm a sucker for excellent views, like anybody else.

Whereas selfies are inherently a necessary evil for all of those apps that require a decent profile picture, the stick takes this indulgence to a whole new level. Before this metal, phone-holding pole became hilariously popular across the globe, we all had to do the unthinkable (prepare to gasp): ask someone to take a photo of us! How strange and good-hearted of us to trust a member of the public with those brilliant point-and-shoot cameras that we've now stuffed in our attics and bedroom drawers.

I can understand using one in a secluded place where there's nobody around. But isn't the reason behind the selfie stick to basically minimise your interaction with others? After all, a human is going to take a better photo of you and your loved one on the Thames, instead of fumbling for the shutter button on the stick and trying to see the screen a few feet away. We've become too afraid and awkward to ask someone for this tiny favour. This level of awkwardness is just being translated into all sorts of stupid goods and services around the world. It's as if the fictional Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm is being catered to in so many ways.

Heard of the Breakup Shop? Yes, it sounds exactly what you think it would be about. A company that can send an endearing Snapchat message so you can break up with the person you just took that selfie with. Even the now classic method of using email is too considered and measured. And by that I mean having the courage to send an email yourself, not via a third-party service. What happened to seeing people's faces in the flesh and witnessing how our words affect them? We used to be so caring and thoughtful this way.

But of course, that's a service for something serious a person with no courage could end up using. What about everyday, tedious matters? Silicon Valley has you covered! For example, you can avoid going to the petrol – sorry, gas – station and doing that thing car owners have to do frequently: fill up your tank with fuel. Don't worry, this giant "inconvenience" can now be removed from your life through Purple. What's that? It's a service where you pay for fuel through an app and share your car's location. At some point, a dude-bro (or sister) will pop round and fill up the fuel tank, so long as you remember to leave the cap open. Yes. This is a real thing.

The word convenience comes up very frequently with these superfluous start-ups. I think it all started to go into overdrive after Graze, a snack delivery service, which I can understand because I'd find it hard to make a low-fat cake and only restrict myself to a small cube for the whole week. Certain colleagues of mine are hooked to these sorts of things, so much so that I stick by my claim of Wall-E, in which humans are bolted to self-driving seats unable to move, being potentially the most accurate of all sci-fi films ever made.

However, other start-ups are so flat-out idiotic, you have to question why they exist, like Fetch Coffee. Why would you pay extra to have a Starbucks drink delivered to your door? After all, Starbucks sell that stuff in the supermarkets for you to make yourself when you are at home and away from one of their cafes. Are we simply so annoyed by the act of queuing and recognising each other's existence that we want our morning coffee personally delivered to us in such a wasteful way?

It's pretty simple. We're all becoming fumbling, anxious outcasts, constantly inconvenienced by life itself. We're determined to avoid interaction with others even more than is already possible. No wonder the best YouTube channels are of fellow citizens sharing stories of awkward encounters – they're my favourite too.

The Office, NBC

These are all passive distractions we're happy to engage in, so we can avoid sitting with someone for two minutes and provide, in the words of Dwight Schrute, undivided attention to others. It reminds me of an appearance by Louis CK on Conan O'Brien's American talk show. He says everyone has something inside them that is "forever empty", and we're losing the ability to feel empathy towards others.

The most striking thing about following Adele's re-emergence like a fanboy was the small atom of information saying she had returned to doing her own laundry again after giving up the chore. Perhaps it's time we become happy and content in being able to wash our own clothes, fuel up a car and even ask someone to take a photo of ourselves. It'll make us better people.