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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Vacuum Energy and Virtual Particles

By May 14, 2012

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Feynman Diagram showing a pair of virtual particles coming briefly into existence.One of the weirdest facts about quantum physics is that particles are constantly springing into and out of existence all around us. Even within "empty space," which seems like it should contain no energy at all, there are virtual particle pairs that manifest for a moment before annihilating each other.

This means that energy is contained even in the empty vacuum of space itself, a fact which yields all sort of strange behavior. This vacuum energy may explain the dark energy that cosmologists observe, but the problem is that the theoretical calculations and experimental observations are off by quite a lot.  If the theoretical calculations were correct, there'd be a lot more vacuum energy (sometimes called vacuum pressure) and the universe's acceleration would be a lot faster ... so fast that, in fact, the universe probably wouldn't have been able to form galaxies, stars, and planets.

It's precisely this sort of behavior that physicist Brian Greene refers to as quantum jitters in his popular science books. In fact, there's a very high likelihood that this sort of "energy from nothing" aspect of quantum physics provides the physical basis for the formation of the universe. The Big Bang theory describes how the universe proceeded from the moment of its creation, but doesn't actually dictate how that creation occurred. Actually, once you have the laws of quantum physics in place, the idea of manifesting something from nothing becomes relatively commonplace, as described in Lawrence Krauss' A Universe From Nothing and Hawking & Mlodinow's The Grand Design. Of course, general relativity is also needed, for that universe to begin expanding ... at least until we figure out a theory of quantum gravity.

Virtual particles are important in astrophysics for at least one other reason: they provide the basis for the Hawking radiation, the radiation that should be emitted by black holes.

Comments

May 15, 2012 at 2:29 am
(1) Mtafu Norwin Maseleka says:

Well, apparently space is becoming more and more like an “as yet undetectable form of energy”. It is tempting to suppose that space is the “primitive form of energy” capable of transforming itself into matter, em radiation, gluon, graviton, etc.

May 15, 2012 at 8:33 am
(2) Amir says:

dark matter and dark energy can be explained in a positive time axis of atomic time line if we assume the ordinary time as a negative one passing to reach the zero point. Aniparticles and particles cancel out their time line when they meet other and they disappear then

May 16, 2012 at 5:10 am
(3) Aditya Battin says:

The Ultimate Free Lunch eh?

May 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm
(4) juan meridalva says:

Hi,
For a complement to this, Check: Wikipedia, Pioneer anomaly, new physics.Masreliez as a candidate for his theory EST.

June 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm
(5) Terry Coates says:

Could there be an equal amount of positive matter and negative matter in the universe seperated from each other?
Perhaps the negative concentrated at the centre?
If the signs were to swap we wouldn’t know the differerence since the product of two negative masses is positive.
If we want to know things like this we need to know the mind of the creater of everything. I don’t think that is possible, although we have been given brains to want to understand these things, and the ability to do so to some degree.

January 28, 2013 at 10:49 pm
(6) azillion says:

If I have questions about some of these theories, how does one go about finding someone open to discussion? I have no formal education, but need either experament common people can’t perform or an expert to debunk or test.

December 23, 2013 at 6:36 am
(7) Priyank Soni says:

thanks for sharing your knowledge on vacuum particles with us.

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