by David Siegel Bernstein, PhD
This month I have two more quantum phenomena you may want to use in your fiction: virtual particles and zero-point energy. And guess what–they both owe their existence to our old friend the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Recall from last month’s post (If You are Uncertain—Call a Quantum Mechanic for a Fix), the uncertainty principle states the more precisely you measure the position of a moving particle, the less exact your measurement of its momentum, and vice versa. This uncertainty is not from flaws in measurement, but from quantum fuzziness due to the wave nature of particles.
Let’s make things quantum weirder by bringing time and energy into our discussion. Because they are both functions of wavelengths (the cause of all things fuzzy) their measurements have uncertainties, and like momentum and position, these two uncertainties can’t be reduced to zero simultaneously. It is these uncertainties that give rise to virtual particles and zero-point energy which in turn gives us fiction writers more fertile ground for planting techno speak in our stories.
I. Virtual Particles
Virtual particles are little some things that are allowed to arise from nothing so long as they promise to return back to nothing after a duration too quick to be observed. These virtual particles permeate all of space, doing some very helpful things such as regulating particle decay and mediating the exchange of forces between particles.
For example, when two negatively charged electrons repulse each other, they are exchanging virtual photons. These virtual particles are little messages saying: Hey you, back off! Because these virtual photons exist only for a short time, they can’t travel very far, unlike lower-energy photons (let there be light). This explains why the electric force is stronger at short distances. In fact, all the basic forces diminish with distance for this reason. There is the caveat that although gravity also diminishes with distance, physicists have yet to reconcile this force with quantum mechanics.
II. Zero-Point Energy
Thanks to those pesky virtual particles, action is happening at every point in space and time–everything, everywhere, oscillates. The energy from all the quivering is called zero-point energy which–by the way–is always nonzero.
The best-known experimental evidence of zero-point energy is called the Casimir effect. The Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir predicted that a dense metal plate in a vacuum (the unlikeliest place to find energy) would be bombarded on both sides by virtual particles. If you put two such plates very very (and by very very, I mean really really) close there won’t be enough space between them for larger virtual particles to pop into existence. Because the vacuum pressure is now less between the plates than on their outer surfaces they experience a net force pushing them together; energy in a vacuum–zero-point energy.
How can we take advantage of virtual particles and zero-point energy when writing science fiction? They are both everywhere and will never run out (until the heat death of the universe). If they could be harnessed, imagine how advantageous that would be for colonization, war, etc. Just as a caveat, remember zero-point energy is already the lowest possible energy of a system so you have to be a savvy science fiction writer to come up with a way of extracting it without using up more energy than you get out. According to physicists, extracting this energy is unlikely, but not to the creative fiction writer!
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