Vacuum energy: Wikis


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Vacuum energy is an underlying background energy that exists in space even when devoid of matter (known as free space). The vacuum energy is deduced from the concept of virtual particles, which are themselves derived from the energy-time uncertainty principle. Its effects can be observed in various phenomena (such as spontaneous emission, the Casimir effect, the van der Waals bonds, or the Lamb shift), and it is thought to have consequences for the behavior of the Universe on cosmological scales. The energy of a cubic centimeter of empty space has been calculated to be one trillionth of an erg [1], based on the upper limit of the cosmological constant.



Quantum field theory states that all of the various fundamental fields, such as the electromagnetic field, must be quantized at each and every point in space. In a naïve sense, a field in physics may be envisioned as if space were filled with interconnected vibrating balls and springs, and the strength of the field can be visualized as the displacement of a ball from its rest position. Vibrations in this field propagate and are governed by the appropriate wave equation for the particular field in question. The second quantization of quantum field theory requires that each such ball-spring combination be quantized, that is, that the strength of the field be quantized at each point in space. Canonically, the field at each point in space is a simple harmonic oscillator, and its quantization places a quantum harmonic oscillator at each point. Excitations of the field correspond to the elementary particles of particle physics. Thus, even the vacuum has a vastly complex structure. All calculations of quantum field theory must be made in relation to this model of the vacuum.

The vacuum implicitly has the same properties as a particle, which are spin, or polarization in the case of light, energy, and so on. On average, all of these properties cancel out: the vacuum is, after all, "empty" in this sense. One important exception is the vacuum energy or the vacuum expectation value of the energy. The quantization of a simple harmonic oscillator states that the lowest possible energy, or zero-point energy, that such an oscillator may have is:

{E} = \begin{matrix} \frac{1}{2} \end{matrix} \hbar \omega\

Summing over all possible oscillators at all points in space gives an infinite quantity. To remove this infinity, one may argue that only differences in energy are physically measurable, much as the concept of potential energy has been treated in classical mechanics for centuries. This argument is the underpinning of the theory of renormalization. In all practical calculations, this is how the infinity is handled.

Vacuum energy can also be thought of in terms of virtual particles (also known as vacuum fluctuations) which are created and destroyed out of the vacuum. These particles are always created out of the vacuum in particle-antiparticle pairs, which shortly annihilate each other and disappear. However, these particles and antiparticles may interact with others before disappearing, a process which can be mapped using Feynman diagrams. Note that this method of computing vacuum energy is mathematically equivalent to having a quantum harmonic oscillator at each point and, therefore, suffers the same renormalization problems.

Additional contributions to the vacuum energy come from spontaneous symmetry breaking in quantum field theory.


Vacuum energy has a number of consequences. In 1948, Dutch physicists Hendrik B. G. Casimir and Dirk Polder predicted the existence of a tiny attractive force between closely placed metal plates due to resonances in the vacuum energy in the space between them. This is now known as the Casimir effect and has since been extensively experimentally verified. It is therefore believed that the vacuum energy is "real" in the same sense that more familiar conceptual objects such as electrons, magnetic fields, etc., are real.

Other predictions are more esoteric and harder to verify. Vacuum fluctuations are always created as particle/antiparticle pairs. The creation of these virtual particles near the event horizon of a black hole has been hypothesized by physicist Stephen Hawking to be a mechanism for the eventual "evaporation" of black holes. The net energy of the Universe remains zero so long as the particle pairs annihilate each other within Planck time. If one of the pair is pulled into the black hole before this, then the other particle becomes "real" and energy/mass is essentially radiated into space from the black hole. This loss is cumulative and could result in the black hole's disappearance over time. The time required is dependent on the mass of the black hole but could be on the order of 10100 years for large solar-mass black holes.

Unsolved problems in physics
Why doesn't the vacuum energy cause a large cosmological constant? What cancels it out? Question mark2.svg

The vacuum energy also has important consequences for physical cosmology. Special relativity predicts that energy is equivalent to mass, and therefore, if the vacuum energy is "really there", it should exert a gravitational force. Essentially, a non-zero vacuum energy is expected to contribute to the cosmological constant, which affects the expansion of the universe. However, the vacuum energy is mathematically infinite without renormalization, which is based on the assumption that we can only measure energy in a relative sense, which is not true if we can observe it indirectly via the cosmological constant.

The existence of vacuum energy is also sometimes used, outside of mainstream physics, as controversial theoretical justification for the possibility of free energy machines. It has been argued that due to the broken symmetry (in QED), free energy does not violate conservation of energy, since the laws of thermodynamics only apply to equilibrium systems. However, consensus amongst physicists is that this is incorrect and that vacuum energy cannot be harnessed to generate free energy.[2] In particular, the second law of thermodynamics is unaffected by the existence of vacuum energy.[citation needed]


In 1934, Georges Lemaître used an unusual perfect-fluid equation of state to interpret the cosmological constant as due to vacuum energy. In 1948, the Casimir effect provided the first experimental verification of the existence of vacuum energy. In 1957, Lee and Yang proved the concepts of broken symmetry and parity violation, for which they won the Nobel prize. In 1973, Edward Tryon proposed that the Universe may be a large-scale quantum-mechanical vacuum fluctuation where positive mass-energy is balanced by negative gravitational potential energy. During the 1980s, there were many attempts to relate the fields that generate the vacuum energy to specific fields that were predicted by Grand unification theory and to use observations of the Universe to confirm that theory. However, the exact nature of the particles or fields that generate vacuum energy, with a density such as that required by inflation theory, remains a mystery.

See also

External articles and references


  1. ^ Sean Carroll, Sr Research Associate - Physics, California Institute of Technology, June 22, 2006 C-SPAN broadcast of Cosmology at Yearly Kos Science Panel, Part 1
  2. ^ IEEE Trans. Ed., 1996, p.7

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