In spontaneously broken gauge theories of particle interactions there are sometimes several local minima of the effective potential. Any of these minima can serve as a vacuum in the sense that we can expand the fields around their values at the minimum, interpret the quantized fluctuations around the minimum as particles, and compare the properties of these particles with experiment. One might think that only the state with absolutely minimum energy could be what we ordinarily call our vacuum, as the other local minima will inevitably decay into this lowest one. However, this is not necessarily the case, because it is possible for the lifetime of a metastable vacuum to be very long, even when compared with the age of the Universe. Furthermore, the energy densities available in present laboratory or astrophysical environments are much less than the barriers which exist in field space between the different local minima, and so we have no direct sensitivity to the presence of a possibly lower vacuum state. (A possible exception to this are magnetic monopoles which do probe the large field region.) If it is not the absolute minimization of the effective potential, what does determine the present vacuum state of the Universe? We argue here that it is determined cosmologically by the dynamical evolution of the Universe from the hot, dense phase which existed shortly after the big bang to the present1,2.
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