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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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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