It is a problem so strange only a handful of physicists know about it. Well, that is until one day, the ‘problem’ becomes real. It will be some bizarre event. For on that day, everything in the Universe will fall apart.
Just picture it. You’re standing in the subway during rush hour. Then, suddenly, you hear a funny sound. It is the guy standing next to you. He looks ill. And then, the incredible happens. Right before your eyes, the poor fellow crumbles, much like a piece of porcelain breaking up. He literally cracks up into thousand pieces. And then -- he’s gone. Just that: gone. You find yourself standing at a foul-reeking muddle of liquid on the floor.
You are, of course, stunned. But wait, see that lady over there? Oh no, she’s crumbling, too! And look, that old man over there -- he’s also vanishing. One by one, people on the subway just... go liquid. Suddenly, you’re all alone. Where commuters used to be, only little pools of liquid remain.
You gasp for breath. But then, suddenly, you feel a little... weird. It is a kind of pain that isn’t really pain; a kind of sickness that isn’t really sickness. "What...", you utter. But then you utter nothing more. Your body makes a wettish ‘splash’ as it hits the floor.
What has happened to you, is a weird and little-known phenomenon, a true freak of physics. You’ve been hit by the changing of the ‘fundamental constants’. And the bad news is this: more and more scientists believe the disaster is real -- and inevitable. Yes, you read that right: inevitable. Like it or not, the Universe seems to be heading towards the Big Crumbling.
And people going liquid on the subway is only one thing. If you looked up, you would perhaps witness the Sun exploding. Oh, and all stars would explode, too. Planets might swell, like balloons. Trees, animals and plants will crumble and liquefy, just like you. All kinds of rocks will come apart and vaporize. It is in fact hard to predict what exactly will happen in what order, when the fundamental constants reach their critical values.
There, we’ve said it: ‘critical values’, ‘fundamental constants’. Understanding what went wrong isn’t a piece of cake.
First, you should know the Universe and everything in it is based on certain fixed numbers. The speed of light is one of them: no matter where you look, the speed of light is ALWAYS the same. It is a constant. A given. The speed of light is just the way it is -- no more, no less.
And there are many more constants underpinning nature. All in all, there are about 25 of these physical ‘holy numbers’. There’s the mass of the proton. The strength of the electromagnetic force. The strength of gravity. The strong nuclear force. The ‘Planck constant’. ‘Avogadro’s number’. And so on, and so on.
There’s a very peculiar thing about the constants. They make us possible. All of the constants have exactly the right values to make the Universe possible. Had one of them been only a smidgen bigger or smaller, molecules wouldn’t be stable, stars wouldn’t be there, and you wouldn’t be here reading this. So we should consider ourselves very lucky the constants are exactly the way they are.
But the thing is -- we’re running out of luck. In 2001, physicists studying distant galaxies discovered something totally weird and unexpected. One of the constants, the so-called ‘fine structure constant’, seems to be changing! Very, very slowly, it is getting bigger.
This ignited a debate that rages until this day. Other scientists simply can’t believe it. Constants should be, well, constant. But in the meantime, there’s more and more evidence they’re not. There are clues the mass of the proton is on the move, too. And the speed of light and the Planck constant -- all gooey. Now take a long, deep breath and think about this for a while. Very slowly, the very foundations of the Universe are getting unstable!
Yup, you get the picture - that’s bad news. It means the Universe is heading for destruction. It will take many billions of years. But in the long run, the constants will change our Universe completely. Atoms will no longer be possible. Stars will no longer be stable. Matter itself will no longer be able to exist.
There you have it -- the day everything falls apart. It is estimated that if the fine-structure constant were only 1 to 3 percent bigger than it is today, carbon will become unstable and cease to exist. That’s where people will fall apart: everything that lives is made of carbon. No carbon, and all that will be left of you is... well, the wet stuff.
And that’s just one thing. If the force of gravity were to dim just a few percent, stars would go out. If it got a tad bigger, stars would overheat and explode. If the ‘strong nuclear force’ grows slightly, the Sun would burn up in less than a second. If it goes down, the stuff known as ‘deuterium’ (H3) falls apart, and the Sun goes out. Hey, we could go on like this forever!
So... should we brace ourselves? Well, not yet. No matter how certain the Big Crumble is, it will still take an estimated 3,000 billions of years before we’d begin to notice it. That’s 3,000,000,000,000 years from now! What you call: the distant future. By that time, at least you don’t go about in subways anymore. In fact, humanity probably won’t be there at all anymore. We will have evolved into something else, or find ourselves killed by meteors, the exploding Sun, robots or supervolcanoes.
Variable fundamental constants? - By researcher Michael Murphy
The fundamental physical constants
Are the laws of nature changing with time (Physics Web)
Sacred constants might be changing (PhysOrg)
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