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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An antibiotic-resistant superbug is silently spreading through UK hospitals

There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, but deaths are not centrally recorded. 

Lying in a hospital bed, four months pregnant, Emily Morris felt only terror. She had caught a urinary tract infection and it was resistant to common antibiotics. Doctors needed to treat it as it could harm the baby, but the only drugs that could work hadn’t been tested on pregnant women before; the risks were unknown. Overwhelmed, Emily and her husband were asked to make a decision. A few hours later, gripping each other’s arms, they decided she should be given the drugs.

In Emily’s case, the medicine worked and her son Emerson (pictured below with Emily) was born healthy. But rising antibiotic resistance means people are now suffering infections for which there is no cure. Doctors have long warned that decades of reliance on these drugs will lead to a "post-antibiotic era"– a return to time where a scratch could kill and common operations are too risky.

It sounds like hyperbole – but this is already a reality in the UK. In the last four years 25 patients have suffered infections immune to all the antibiotics Public Health England tests for in its central lab, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered.

While these cases are rare, reports of a highly resistant superbug are rising, and infection control doctors are worried. Carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are not only difficult to pronounce, but deadly. These are bugs that live in the human gut but can cause an infection if they get into the wrong place, like the urinary tract or a wound. They have evolved to become immune to most classes of antibiotics – so if someone does become infected, there are only a few drugs that will still work. If CRE bacteria get into the bloodstream, studies show between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of people die.

These bugs are causing huge problems in India, certain parts of Asia, the Middle East and some countries in southern Europe. Until recently, most infections were seen in people who had travelled abroad, had family members who had, or had been in a foreign hospital. The boom in cheap cosmetic surgery in India was blamed for a spate of infections in Britain.

Now, doctors are finding people who have never boarded a plane are carrying the bug. There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin and Limerick among other areas. Patients found with CRE have to be treated in side rooms in hospital so the bacteria does not spread and harm other vulnerable patients. But in many of Britain’s Victorian-built hospitals, single rooms are in sparse supply. Deaths from CRE aren’t centrally recorded by the government - but it is thought hundreds have already died. 

Across the country, doctors are being forced to reach for older, more toxic drugs to treat these infections. The amount of colistin – called the "last hope" antibiotic as it is one of few options still effective against CRE infections - rose dramatically in English hospitals between 2014 and 2015, the Bureau has revealed. Colistin was taken off the shelves soon after it was introduced, as it can harm the kidneys and nervous system in high doses, but was reintroduced when infections became immune to standard treatment. The more we use colistin the more bacteria develop resistance to it. It’s only a matter of time before it stops working too, leaving doctors’ arsenal near-empty when it comes to the most dangerous superbug infections.

Due to a kidney problem, Emily Morris suffers repeat urinary tract infections and has to be hospitalised most months. Her son Emerson comes to visit her, understanding his mummy is ill. If she catches a superbug infection, she can still be given intravenous antibiotics to stem it. But she worries about her son. By the time he is an adult, if he gets ill, there may be no drugs left that work.

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism