A rather harrowing new theory about the death of the universe paints a picture of "phantom energy" ripping apart galaxies, stars, planets and eventually every speck of matter in a fantastical end to time.
Scientifically it is just about the most repulsive notion ever conceived.
The speculative but serious cosmology is described as a "pretty fantastic possibility" even by its lead author, Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth University. It explains one possible outcome for solid astronomical observations made in the late 1990s -- that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing pace, and that something unknown is vacuuming everything outward.
The question Caldwell and his colleagues posed is, what would happen if the rate of acceleration increased?
Their answer is that the eventual, phenomenal pace would overwhelm the normal, trusted effects of gravity right down to the local level. Even the nuclear forces that bind things in the subatomic world will cease to be effective.
"The expansion becomes so fast that it literally rips apart all bound objects," Caldwell explained in a telephone interview. "It rips apart clusters of galaxies. It rips apart stars. It rips apart planets and solar systems. And it eventually rips apart all matter."