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Physicists prove you can make something out of nothing by simulating cosmic physics

A team of physicists says they have proven a 70-year-old quantum theory that something can be created from nothing.

An experiment designed to study the flow of “low-valence” electrons accidentally managed to produce an analogue of particle-antiparticle pairs where none had previously existed, using only an electric field and the near-magical properties of the 2-D material graphene. The experiment was carried out in January by a research team working at the University of Manchester.

Previous theories held that such a process could only occur in ultra-high-energy environments, such as the vicinity of a black hole or the center of a neutron star. However, the most recent discovery was made using standard laboratory equipment.

The Schwinger effect theorized over 50 years ago

In physics, there are situations where individual particles can be manipulated to create additional particles seemingly out of nothing. For example, if you take a quantum particle known as a meson and try to pluck its quark, a new set of particle-antiparticle pairs will appear between them out of the nothingness of empty space. However, this situation involves starting with something – a meson – and creating more “something” from it.

But in 1951, Julian Schwinger, one of the founders of quantum electrodynamics and a 1964 Nobel Prize-winning physicist, suggested that creating matter out of empty space should be possible, even if there is nothing there to begin with, as long as you perturb it. that empty space with a strong enough electric field. Since then, this completely theoretical concept has been known simply as the Schwinger effect. Now, a team of researchers has shown that this effect is real, essentially creating something out of nothing.

Nothing from nothing means nothing. Unless you have a strong electric field

“In the Universe we inhabit, it is truly impossible to create ‘nothing’ in a satisfactory way. Everything that exists, at a fundamental level, can be broken down into individual entities – quanta – that cannot be broken down further,” writes Ethan Siegel of Think big, explaining the foundations of the recent discovery of physics. “These elementary particles include quarks, electrons, the electron’s heavier cousins ​​(muons and taus), neutrinos, as well as all their antimatter counterparts, plus photons, gluons, and the heavy bosons: W+, W-, Z0, and Higgs. If you take them all away, however, the ’empty space’ that remains is not empty at all in many physical senses.”

What remains is the quantum field, the general background energy that pervades the entire universe (cue Star Wars the “force” music!) In Schwinger’s theory, if you apply a massive enough electric field to a region of space that is completely empty, the quantum field of that space will pick up some of that electricity and create particle-antiparticle pairs out of thin air .

In January, University of Manchester The scientists were working on “valence electron” conduction, essentially trying to get all classes of electrons to join the flow by modifying graphene, a material that is effectively two-dimensional in nature. This unique structure helps this type of experiment by limiting the routes that elementary particles like electrons can take, hopefully resulting in an essentially uniform flow of electrons if the right amount of electricity is pumped into the system. However, once the team actually began the experiments, something unexpected happened.

“They filled their simulated vacuum with electrons and accelerated them to the maximum speed allowed by the graphene vacuum, which is 1/300 the speed of light,” a recent study. University of Manchester the release explains. “At this point, something seemingly impossible happened: the electrons seemed to become superluminous, providing an electric current greater than that allowed by the general rules of condensed quantum matter physics. The origin of this effect was explained as the spontaneous generation of additional charge carriers (holes).”

As mentioned, this result was somewhat unexpected: the creation of an analogue of electron-positron pairs where previously only empty space had existed. In fact, this laboratory-grade electric field was strong enough to create something real out of nothing.

“The key signatures of the disequilibrium state are current-voltage characteristics resembling those of superconductors, sharp peaks in differential resistance, reversal of the sign of the Hall effect, and a marked anomaly caused by Schwinger-like production of hot electrons. hole plasma,” the researchers wrote in their published paper.

As it turns out, that anomalous plasma of electrons is a perfect analogue for the particle-antiparticle pair predicted by Schwinger. So in effect, even using a low-strength electric field (at least compared to the center of a black hole or neutron star), the team accidentally proved the Schwinger effect, making something where nothing had been before.

“When we first saw the spectacular features of our superlattice devices, we thought ‘wow… this could be a new kind of superconductivity,'” explained Dr. Roshan Krishna Kumar, one of the co-authors of the paper. “Although the response closely resembles that commonly seen in superconductors, we soon discovered that the surprising behavior was not superconductivity, but something in the realm of astrophysics and particle physics.”

That something, in this case, was the result of the Schwinger effect.

“It’s curious to see such parallels between distant disciplines,” Kumar added.

“People usually study electronic properties using tiny electric fields that allow easier analysis and theoretical description,” said the paper’s first author, Dr. Alexey Berduygin, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Manchester. “We decided to push the strength of the electric fields as far as possible using various experimental tricks to keep our devices from burning.”

Dr. Na Xin, co-lead author of the paper, said this was an unexpected but pleasant surprise, given the risks of pushing their equipment to such extremes.

“We just wondered what could happen at this extreme,” Xin said. “To our surprise, it was the Schwinger effect rather than smoke coming out of our setup.”

Something is still better than nothing

The researchers note that their experiments were low enough in energy that creating a true electron-positron pair was not yet within reach. But, they say, the analog plasma “hole” created is proof that the Schwinger effect is real and that, given enough energy, material particles can be created out of pure nothingness.

So it may be a long time before laboratory equipment large enough to create matter out of thin air brings things like food replicators or matter-energy transporters to reality. But given the results of the Manchester team’s experiments, the idea of ​​making something out of nothing has been officially proven.

“With electrons and positrons (or ‘holes’) literally being created out of nothing, just plucked out of the quantum vacuum by the electric fields themselves, it’s yet another way the Universe demonstrates the seemingly impossible,” says Siegel.

“We really can make something out of absolutely nothing!”

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter @plain_fiction.

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