The Decay of the False Vacuum

Written by Sten Odenwald

Copyright (C) 1983 Kalmbach Publishing. Reprinted by permission

Astronomy Cafe


In the recently developed theory by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam, that unifies the electromagnetic and weak forces, the vacuum is not empty. This peculiar situation comes about because of the existence of a new type of field, called the Higgs field. The Higgs field has an important physical consequence since its interaction with the W, W and Z particles (the carriers of the weak force) causes them to gain mass at energies below 100 billion electron volts (100 Gev). Above this energy they are quite massless just like the photon and it is this characteristic that makes the weak and electromagnetic forces so similar at high energy.

On a somewhat more abstract level, consider Figures 1 and 2 representing the average energy of the vacuum state. If the universe were based on the vacuum state in Figure 1, it is predicted that the symmetry between the electromagnetic and weak interactions would be quite obvious. The particles mediating the forces would all be massless and behave in the same way. The corresponding forces would be indistinguishable. This would be the situation if the universe had an average temperature of 1 trillion degrees so that the existing particles collided at energies of 100 Gev. In Figure 2, representing the vacuum state energy for collision energies below 100 Gev, the vacuum state now contains the Higgs field and the symmetry between the forces is suddenly lost or 'broken'. Although at low energy the way in which the forces behave is asymmetric, the fundamental laws governing the electromagnetic and weak interactions remain inherently symmetric. This is a very remarkable and profound prediction since it implies that certain symmetries in Nature can be hidden from us but are there nonetheless.

During the last 10 years physicists have developed even more powerful theories that attempt to unify not only the electromagnetic and weak forces but the strong nuclear force as well. These are called the Grand Unification Theories (GUTs) and the simplist one known was developed by Howard Georgi, Helen Quinn,and Steven Weinberg and is called SU(5), (pronounced 'ess you five'). This theory predicts that the nuclear and 'electroweak' forces will eventually have the same strength but only when particles collide at energies above 1 thousand trillion GeV corresponding to the unimaginable temperature of 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees! SU(5) requires exactly 24 particles to mediate forces of which the 8 massless gluons of the nuclear force, the 3 massless intermediate vector bosons of the weak force and the single massless photon of the electromagnetic force are 12. The remaining 12 represent a totally new class of particles called Leptoquark bosons that have the remarkable property that they can transform quarks into electrons. SU(5) therefore predicts the existence of a 'hyperweak' interaction; a new fifth force in the universe! Currently, this force is 10 thousand trillion trillion times weaker than the weak force but is nevertheless 100 million times stronger than gravity. What would this new force do? Since protons are constructed from 3 quarks and since quarks can now decay into electrons, through the Hyperweak interaction, SU(5) predicts that protons are no longer the stable particles we have always imagined them to be. Crude calculations suggest that they may have half-lives between 10(29) to 10(33) years. An immediate consequence of this is that even if the universe were destined to expand for all eternity, after 'only' 10(32) years or so, all of the matter present would catastrophically decay into electrons, neutrinos and photons. The Era of Matter, with its living organisms, stars and galaxies, would be swept away forever, having represented but a fleeting episode in the history of the universe. In addition to proton decay, SU(5) predicts that at the energy characteristic of the GUT transition, we will see the affects of a new family of particles called supermassive Higgs bosons whose masses are expected to be approximately 1 thousand trillion GeV! These particles interact with the 12 Leptoquarks and make them massive just as the Higgs bosons at 100 GeV made the W, W and Z particles heavy. Armed with this knowledge, let's explore some of the remarkable cosmological consequences of these exciting theories.

The GUT Era

To see how these theories relate to the history of the universe, imagine if you can a time when the average temperature of the universe was not the frigid 3 K that it is today but an incredable 10 thousand trillion trillion degrees (10(15) GeV). The 'Standard Model' of the Big Bang, tells us this happened about 10(-37) seconds after Creation. The protons and neutrons that we are familiar with today hadn't yet formed since their constituent quarks interacted much too weakly to permit them to bind together into 'packages' like neutrons and protons. The remaining constituents of matter, electrons, muons and tau leptons, were also massless and traveled about at essentially light-speed; They were literally a new form of radiation, much like light is today! The 12 supermassive Leptoquarks as well as the supermassivs Higgs bosons existed side-by-side with their anti-particles. Every particle-anti particle pair that was annihilated was balanced by the resurrection of a new pair somewhere else in the universe. During this period, the particles that mediated the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces were completely massless so that these forces were no longer distinguishable. An inhabitant of that age would not have had to theorize about the existence of a symmetry between the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions, this symmetry would have been directly observable and furthermore, fewer types of particles would exist for the inhabitants to keep track of. The universe would actually have beed much simpler then!

As the universe continued to expand, the temperature continued to plummet. It has been suggested by Demetres Nanopoulis and Steven Weinberg in 1979 that one of the supermassive Higgs particles may have decayed in such a way that slightly more matter was produced than anti-matter. The remaining evenly matched pairs of particles and anti-particles then annihilated to produce the radiation that we now see as the 'cosmic fireball'.

Exactly what happened to the universe as it underwent the transitions at 10(15) and 100 GeV when the forces of Nature suddenly became distinguishable is still under investigation, but certain tantalizing descriptions have recently been offered by various groups of theoriticians working on this problem. According to studies by Alan Guth, Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczyk between 1979 and 1981, when the GUT transition occured, it occured in a way not unlike the formation of vapor bubbles in a pot of boiling water. In this analogy, the interior of the bubbles represent the vacuum state in the new phase, where the forces are distinguishable, embedded in the old symmetric phase where the nuclear, weak and electromagnetic forces are indistinguishable. Inside these bubbles, the vacuum energy is of the type illustrated by Figure 2 while outside it is represented by Figure 1. Since we are living within the new phase with its four distinguishable forces, this has been called the 'true' vacuum state. In the false vacuum state, the forces remain indistinguishable which is certainly not the situation that we find ourselves in today!

Cosmic Inflation

An exciting prediction of Guth's model is that the universe may have gone through at least one period in its history when the expansion was far more rapid than predicted by the 'standard' Big Bang model. The reason for this is that the vacuum itself also contributes to the energy content of the universe just as matter and radiation do however, the contribution is in the opposite sense. Although gravity is an attractive force, the vacuum of space produces a force that is repulsive. As Figures 1 and 2 show, the minimum energy state of the false vacuum at 'A' before the GUT transition is at a higher energy than in the true vacuum state in 'B' after the transition. This energy difference is what contributes to the vacuum energy. During the GUT transition period, the positive pressure due to the vacuum energy would have been enormously greater than the restraining pressure produced by the gravitational influence of matter and radiation. The universe would have inflated at a tremendous rate, the inflation driven by the pressure of the vacuum! In this picture of the universe, Einstein's cosmological constant takes on a whole new meaning since it now represents a definite physical concept ; It is simply a measure of the energy difference between the true and false vacuum states ('B' and 'A' in Figures 1 and 2.) at a particular time in the history of the universe. It also tells us that, just as in de Sitter's model, a universe where the vacuum contributes in this way must expand exponentially in time and not linearly as predicted by the Big Bang model. Guth's scenario for the expansion of the universe is generally called the 'inflationary universe' due to the rapidity of the expansion and represents a phase that will end only after the true vacuum has supplanted the false vacuum of the old, symmetric phase.

A major problem with Guth's original model was that the inflationary phase would have lasted for a very long time because the false vacuum state is such a stable one. The universe becomes trapped in the cul-de-sac of the false vacuum state and the exponential expansion never ceases. This would be somewhat analogous to water refusing to freeze even though its temperature has dropped well below 0 Centigrade. Recent modifications to the original 'inflationary universe' model have resulted in what is now called the 'new' inflationary universe model. In this model, the universe does manage to escape from the false vacuum state and evolves in a short time to the familiar true vacuum state.

We don't really know how exactly long the inflationary phase may have lasted but the time required for the universe to double its size may have been only 10(-34) seconds. Conceivably, this inflationary period could have continued for as 'long' as 10(-24) seconds during which time the universe would have undergone 10 billion doublings of its size! This is a number that is truely beyond comprehension. As a comparison, only 120 doublings are required to inflate a hydrogen atom to the size of the entire visible universe! According to the inflationary model, the bubbles of the true vacuum phase expanded at the speed of light. Many of these had to collide when the universe was very young in order that the visible universe appear so uniform today. A single bubble would not have grown large enough to encompass our entire visible universe at this time; A radius of some 15-20 billion light years. On the other hand, the new inflationary model states that even the bubbles expanded in size exponentially just as their separations did. The bubbles themselves grew to enormous sizes much greater than the size of our observable universe. According to Albrecht and Steinhardt of the University of Pennsylvania, each bubble may now be 10(3000) cm in size. We should not be too concerned about these bubbles expanding at many times the speed of light since their boundaries do not represent a physical entity. There are no electrons or quarks riding some expandind shock wave. Instead, it is the non-material vacuum of space that is expanding. The expansion velocity of the bubbles is not limited by any physical speed limit like the velocity of light.

GUMs in GUTs

A potential problem for cosmologies that have phase transitions during the GUT Era is that a curious zoo of objects could be spawned if frequent bubble mergers occured as required by Guth's inflationary model. First of all, each bubble of the true vacuum phase contains its own Higgs field having a unique orientation in space. It seems likely that no two bubbles will have their Higgs fields oriented in quite the same way so that when bubbles merge, knots will form. According to Gerhard t'Hooft and Alexander Polyakov, these knots in the Higgs field are the magnetic monopoles originally proposed 40 years ago by Paul Dirac and there ought to be about as many of these as there were bubble mergers during the transition period. Upper limits to their abundance can be set by requiring that they do not contribute to 'closing' the universe which means that for particles of their predicted mass (about 10(16) GeV), they must be 1 trillion trillion times less abundant than the photons in the 3 K cosmic background. Calculations based on the old inflationary model suggest that the these GUMs (Grand Unification Monopoles) may easily have been as much as 100 trillion times more abundant than the upper limit! Such a universe would definitly be 'closed' and moreover would have run through its entire history between expansion and recollapse within a few thousand years. The new inflationary universe model solves this 'GUM' overproduction problem since we are living within only one of these bubbles, now almost infinitly larger than our visible universe. Since bubble collisions are no longer required to homogenize the matter and radiation in the universe, very few, if any, monopoles would exist within our visible universe.


A prolonged period of inflation would have had an important influence on the cosmic fireball radiation. One long-standing problem in modern cosmology has been that all directions in the sky have the same temperature to an astonishing 1 part in 10,000. When we consider that regions separated by only a few degrees in the sky have only recently been in communication with one another, it is hard to understand how regions farther apart than this could be so similar in temperature. The radiation from one of these regions, traveling at the velocity of light, has not yet made it across the intervening distance to the other, even though the radiation may have started on its way since the universe first came into existence. This 'communication gap' would prevent these regions from ironing-out their temperature differences.

With the standard, Big Bang model, as we look back to earlier epochs from the present time, the separations between particles decrease more slowly than their horizons are shrinking. Neighboring regions of space at the present time, become disconnected so temperature differences are free to develope. Eventually, as we look back to very ancient times, the horizons are so small that every particle existing then literally fills the entire volume of its own, observable universe. Imagine a universe where you occupy all of the available space! Prior to the development of the inflationary models, cosmologists were forced to imagine an incredably well-ordered initial state where each of these disconnected domains (some 10(86) in number) had nearly identical properties such as temperature. Any departure from this situation at that time would have grown to sizable temperature differences in widely separated parts of the sky at the present time. Unfortunately, some agency would have to set-up these finely-tuned initial conditions by violating causality. The contradiction is that no force may operate by transmitting its influence faster than the speed of light. In the inflationary models, this contradiction is eliminated because the separation between widely scattered points in space becomes almost infinitly small compared to the size of the horizons as we look back to the epoc of inflation. Since these points are now within each others light horizons, any temperature difference would have been eliminated immediatly since hotter regions would now be in radiative contact with colder ones. With this exponentially-growing, de Sitter phase in the universe's early history we now have a means for resolving the horizon problem.

Instant Flat Space

Because of the exponential growth of the universe during the GUT Era, its size may well be essentially infinite for all 'practical' purposes . Estimates by Albrecht and Steinhardt suggest that each bubble region may have grown to a size of 10(3000) cm by the end of the inflationary period. Consequently, the new inflationary model predicts that the content of the universe must be almost exactly the 'critical mass' since the sizes of each of these bubble regions are almost infinite in extent. The universe is, for all conceivable observations, exactly Euclidean (infinite and flat in geometry) and destined to expand for all eternity to come. Since we have only detected at most 10 percent of the critical mass in the form of luminous matter, this suggests that 10 times as much matter exists in our universe than is currently detectable. Of course, if the universe is essentially infinite this raises the ghastly spectre of the eventual annihilation of all organic and inorganic matter some 10(32) years from now because of proton decay.

In spite of its many apparent successes, even the new inflationary universe model is not without its problems. Although it does seem to provide explainations for several cosmological enigmas, it does not provide a convincing way to create galaxies. Those fluctuations in the density of matter that do survive the inflationary period are so dense that they eventually collapse into galaxy-sized blackholes! Neither the precise way in which the transition to ordinary Hubbel expansion occurs nor the duration of the inflationary period are well determined.

If the inflationary cosmologies can be made to answer each of these issues satisfactorily we may have, as J. Richard Gott III has suggested, a most remarkable model of the universe where an almost infinite number of 'bubble universes' each having nearly infinite size, coexist in the same 4-dimensional spacetime; all of these bubble universes having been brought into existence at the same instant of creation. This is less troublesome than one might suspect since, if our universe is actually infinite as the available data suggests, so too was it infinite even at its moment of birth! It is even conceivable that the universe is 'percolating' with new bubble universes continually coming into existence. Our entire visible universe, out to the most distant quasar, would be but one infinitessimal patch within one of these bubble regions. Do these other universes have galaxies, stars, planets and living creatures statistically similar to those in our universe? We may never know. These other universes, born of the same paroxicism of Creation as our own, are forever beyond our scrutiny but obviously not our imaginations!

Beyond The Beginning...

Finally, what of the period before Grand Unification? We may surmise that at higher temperatures than the GUT Era, even the supermassive Higgs and Leptoquark bosons become massless and at long last we arrive at a time when the gravitational interaction is united with the weak, electromagnetic and strong forces. Yet, our quest for an understanding of the origins of the universe remains incomplete since gravity has yet to be brought into unity with the remaining forces on a theoretical basis. This last step promises to be not only the most difficult one to take on the long road to unification but also appears to hold the greatest promise for shedding light on some of the most profound mysteries of the physical world. Even now, a handful of theorists around the world are hard at work on a theory called Supergravity which unites the force carriers (photons, gluons, gravitons and the weak interaction bosons) with the particles that they act on (quarks, electrons etc). Supergravity theory also predicts the existence of new particles called photinos and gravitinos. There is even some speculation that the photinos may fill the entire universe and account for the unseen 'missing' matter that is necessary to give the universe the critical mass required to make it exactly Euclidean. The gravitinos, on the other hand, prevent calculations involving the exchange of gravitons from giving infinite answers for problems where the answers are known to be perfectly finite. Hitherto, these calculations did not include the affects of the gravitinos.

Perhaps during the next decade, more of the details of the last stage of Unification will be hammered out at which time the entire story of the birth of our universe can be told. This is, indeed, an exciting time to be living through in human history. Will future generations forever envy us our good fortune, to have witnessed in our lifetimes the unfolding of the first comprehensive theory of Existence?