Ephemeral Vacuum Particles Cause Fluctuations in the Speed of Light: New Way to Examine Physics

First Posted: Mar 25, 2013 12:48 PM EDT

Is the nature of a vacuum really fixed? Not so, according to two forthcoming papers. Researchers have identified a quantum level mechanism for interpreting a vacuum as being filled with pairs of virtual particles with fluctuating energy values. They've also discovered that physical constraints, such as the speed of light and the so-called impedance of free space, are indications of the total number of elementary particles in nature.

The findings, which will be published in the European Physical Journal D, essentially examined the nature of vacuum. Vacuum itself is one of the most intriguing concepts in physics. When observed at the quantum level, it's not empty. Instead, vacuum is filled with continuously appearing and disappearing particle pairs--electron-positron or quark-antiquark pairs. The lifetimes of these particles are extremely short.

In one of the new studies, researchers established a detailed quantum mechanism that would explain the magnetization and polarization of the vacuum, referred to as vacuum permeability and permittivity, and the finite speed of light. It suggests that there exist a limited number of ephemeral particles per unit volume in a vacuum.

This finding has further repercussions, though. There's the theoretical possibility that the speed of light is, in fact, not fixed. Instead, the speed could potentially fluctuate at a level that's independent of the energy of each light quantum, or photon, and that's also greater than fluctuations induced by quantum level gravity. Instead, the speed of light would depend on variations in the vacuum properties of space or time.

This may all be theory, but scientists have also pointed out a way to test the fluctuations. Photon propagation time fluctuations are estimated to be on the order of 50 attoseconds per square meter of crossed vacuum. It's possible that this could be tested with the help of new super-fast lasers. Instead of using lasers, though, the researchers modelled virtual charged particle pairs as electric dipoles responsible for the polarization of the vacuum.

In the end, the researchers found that a specific property of vacuum called the impedance, crucial for determining the speed of light, depends only on the sum of the square of the electric charges of particles--but not on their masses.

What does this mean? The value of the speed of light combined with the value of vacuum impedance could give an indication of the number of charged elementary particles existing in nature. In addition, the findings could reveal a whole new way to look at a vacuum, and could impact future research and physics for years to come.

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