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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.