In vacuo veritas?

“Let’s see if my notes are complete, Mr Moire. We’re crossed off two possible Universe finales — falling into a Big Crunch or expanding forever while making new matter between the galaxies to keep itself in a steady state. Or the Universe might expand to some critical density and then stay there but we mostly ruled that out because a twitch would push it to either crunching or expanding forever. Einstein’s Cosmological Constant might or might not be dark energy but either way, Friedmann’s equation predicts that the Universe will expand exponentially. Is that all the ways we could end?”

“Of course not, Jeremy. The far distant future’s like anything we humans don’t know much about, we make lots of guesses. Vacuum energy, for instance.”

“Anything to do with getting my roommate off the couch when it’s their turn to do the floors?”

“Very funny, but no. The notion of ‘vacuum‘ has a history. Aristotle said it’s empty space and that’s nothing and you can’t talk about nothing, but of course that’s exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t until Newton’s day that we developed dependable technologies for producing and investigating ‘nothing.’ Turns out that a good vacuum’s hard to find and even outer space is a lot busier than you might think.”

“Yeah, Jim in the Physics lab says he’s working with Ultra‑High Vacuum, a millionth of a millionth of an atmosphere, and the molecules left in the apparatus still cause problems.”

“Wonder how many molecules that is. Time for Old Reliable. <muttering> Avagadro’s Number, 22.4 liters, 10-12 atmospheres … Wow, there’s nearly 30 billion molecules per liter in his rig, a couple hundred times more if he chills it. <scrolling> This Wikipedia article says the solar wind runs only ten thousand protons per liter; interstellar medium’s about a tenth of that. But all those are physical vacuums. Theoretical vacuums are completely empty except they’re sort‑of not.”

“How could they be empty but not? Is that a Schrödinger joke?”

“No, but it does point up how the word has acquired multiple technical meanings. Newton’s concept of a vacuum was basically equivalent to Aristotle’s — simply a space with no matter in it. Two centuries later, Maxwell pointed the way to electric and magnetic fields which meant we needed to define a new vacuum with no such fields. Einstein added his proviso about the speed of light in a vacuum but that was okay. Then along came quantum and strings and several new kinds of vacuum.”

“Why would we need new definitions? Nothing’s nothing, isn’t it?”

“Not necessarily in theory, and that’s the point. For instance, you might use a Maxwell‑inspired theory to think about how a certain charged object behaves in a certain electromagnetic field. You can’t isolate the field’s effects unless you can add it to a theoretical space containing no objects or electromagnetic fields. Make sense?”

“And that’s a Maxwell vacuum? Seems reasonable. Then what?”

“Quantum theories go in the other direction. They start by assuming that Maxwellian vacuums can’t exist, that space itself continually produces virtual particles from their associated fields.”

“Um, conservation of mass?”

“Valid question. This may feel like dodging, but there’s math and experiment to back it up. What’s really conserved, we think, is mass‑energy. Particles, anti‑particles and energy fluctuations averaging to zero over finite time intervals. A dab of energy concentrated to create a particle’s mass? No problem, because that particle will be annihilated and release its energy equivalent almost immediately. To replace the Maxwellian vacuum, quantum theorists co‑opted the word to refer to a system’s lowest possible quantum state or maybe the lowest possible set of states, depending on which kind of calculation is underway. The cosmology people picked up that notion and that’s when the doom‑saying started.”

“Awright, now we’re getting somewhere. What’s their vacuum like?”

“From what I’ve seen, a tall stack of ‘if‘s and hand‑waving. The idea is that our Universe may not be in the lowest possible quantum state and if so, sometime in the next 188 billion years we could suddenly drop from false to true vacuum, in which case everything goes haywire. I’m not convinced that the Universe even has a quantum state. Don’t panic.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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