Monday, September 20, 2010

Why 'the nothing,' is really something

"A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now..."

- C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Like Lewis, many initially envision the vacuum of space as a place of "utter deadness" and it fuels cold thoughts of a universe devoid of action. But for decades, physicists attempting to unify quantum mechanics and relativity have been accidentally painting a contradictory and compelling picture of what actually separates the worlds. The subtle, yet critical properties of the vacuum are now needed to fully describe many bizarre phenomena in the cosmos.

From the Dirac sea model of a vacuum as an ocean of negatively charged particles to the Casimir effect that dictates there will be a force between two or more objects because their presence alters the vacuum energy; such examples shatter the depressing misconception of an aether of nothingness.

Now, another possible example of the vacuum's importance has been added. In an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters (read the preprint on the arXiv), a group of physicists from Brazil show that the nature of a vacuum around a relativistic star -a rotating neutron star that requires general relativity to explain its behavior- could determine its fate.

A vacuum field gravitates due to its quantum properties and relativity implies that as such it can affect, and be affected by, the properties of spacetime. This is also the basis of Hawking Radiation, which dictates that a black hole should thermally radiate particles and lose mass. While the Brazilian authors say the Hawking effect is "virtually unobservable" in astrophysics, other so called semiclassical gravitation effects caused by the vacuum - such as the effects they describe on neutron stars - might be.

The theory goes like this: when a neutron star forms, it could disturb the vacuum in such a way that it causes its energy density to grow exponentially. In circumstances where the energy density becomes large enough, it would "take control over the evolution of the background spacetime," and could even become the dominant factor in deciding the outcome of how a star dies.

The group calls the process "awakening the vacuum" and when triggered, they say the effects could be seen in anywhere from the tiniest fraction of a second to a few billion years. If proven, the results could provide an important physical test of field theories, because a stable neutron star could confirm or deny what type of field surrounds it.

"Considering that 95-percent of the energy content of the universe is unknown, finding ways of testing the existence of free fields is very welcome," the authors state in the paper. "The awakening of the vacuum energy of certain fields may determine the ultimate fate of some relativistic stars."


  1. I agree with the group of scientists from Brazil. If space is absolute vacuum matter could not have arisen in the Universe. The structure of matter is supported by a continuum of homogenous mass-less particles which give rise to matter and energy through their local and global dynamics. In fact, absolute vacuum represents discontinuity in space such as a black hole, i.e., a singularity, which we perceive as mass. The permeability of the continuum in space is effectively dark matter. For more information visit

  2. My interest is, perhaps, more philosophical than scientific; to wit, is the "nothing" before the Big Bang really something?

    1. But where did the dark matter come from? Mass-less particles do not adequately explain it. Where did the mass-less particles come from? Some astrophysicists say that there must have been "nothing" before the Big Bang but you say that there was a continuum of mass-less particles that through local and global dynamics brought about energy and mass. By continuum do you envision a soup-like area somewhere. And what is local and global dynamics? Do you mean mass-less particles banging together? Is this lots of pre-bangs before the Big one? I seem to remember reading that space is not particles gravitating to one another through complete emptiness. And are not we fairly certain that black holes are not vacant? Perhaps I should change my question to: how did this universe begin and what caused it to do so? I'm not looking for God here. This information is basic to me as I continue to modify my particular philosophy. Thanks for your help. (and thanks for the link)