As electromagnetic waves propagate away from a source that’s surrounded by a strong magnetic field, the polarization direction will be affected due to the magnetic field’s effect on the vacuum of empty space: vacuum birefringence. By measuring the wavelength-dependent effects of polarization around neutron stars with the right properties, we can confirm the predictions of virtual particles in the quantum vacuum. (N. J. SHAVIV / SCIENCEBITS)

Yes, Virtual Particles Can Have Real, Observable Effects

The nature of our quantum Universe is puzzling, counterintuitive, and testable. The results don’t lie.

Ethan Siegel
Starts With A Bang!
8 min readJul 19, 2019

--

Although our intuition is an incredibly useful tool for navigating daily life, developed from a lifetime of experience in our own bodies on Earth, it’s often horrid for providing guidance outside of that realm. On scales of both the very large and the very small, we do far better by applying our best scientific theories, extracting physical predictions, and then observing and measuring the critical phenomena.

Without this approach, we never would have come to understood the basic building blocks of matter, the relativistic behavior of matter and energy, or the fundamental nature of space and time themselves. But nothing matches the counterintuitive nature of quantum vacuum. Empty space isn’t completely empty, but consists of an indeterminate state of fluctuating fields and particles. It’s not science fiction; it’s a theoretical framework with testable, observable predictions. 80 years after Heisenberg first postulated an observational test, humanity has confirmed it. Here’s what we’ve learned.

An illustration between the inherent uncertainty between position and momentum at the quantum level. There is a limit to how well you can measure these two quantities simultaneously, and uncertainty shows up in places where people often least expect it. (E. SIEGEL / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER MASCHEN)

Discovering that our Universe was quantum in nature brought with it a lot of unintuitive consequences. The better you measured a particle’s position, the more fundamentally indeterminate its momentum was. The shorter an unstable particle lived, the less well-known its mass fundamentally was. Material objects that appear to be solid on macroscopic scales can exhibit wave-like properties under the right experimental conditions.

But empty space holds perhaps the top spot when it comes to a phenomenon that defies our intuition. Even if you remove all the particles and radiation from a region of space — i.e., all the sources of quantum fields — space still won’t be empty. It will consist of virtual pairs of particles and antiparticles, whose existence and energy spectra can be calculated. Sending the right physical signal through that empty space should have consequences that are observable.

--

--

Ethan Siegel
Starts With A Bang!

The Universe is: Expanding, cooling, and dark. It starts with a bang! #Cosmology Science writer, astrophysicist, science communicator & NASA columnist.