There are references elsewhere on the North Texas Drifter to vacuum energy, or negative energy or zero point energy, as it is sometimes called; however, the discussion here gives even more detail on this naturally-occurring phenomena. At the end of this article, you should be asking yourself how subatomic particles can suddenly pop into existence without coming from any action or reaction that can be observed. It's something from nothing and it happens constantly, everywhere. Material reality is being renewed at every moment...
Vacuum energy is an underlying background energy that exists in space throughout the entire Universe. One contribution to the vacuum energy may be from virtual particles which are thought to be particle pairs that blink into existence and then annihilate in a time span too short to observe. They are expected to do this everywhere, throughout the Universe. Their behavior is codified in Heisenberg's energy–time uncertainty principle. Still, the exact effect of such fleeting bits of energy is difficult to quantify.
The effects of vacuum energy can be experimentally observed in various phenomena such as spontaneous emission, the Casimir effect and the Lamb shift, and are thought to influence the behavior of the Universe on cosmological scales. Using the upper limit of the cosmological constant, the vacuum energy in a cubic meter of free space has been estimated to be 10−9 Joules. However, in both Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) and Stochastic Electrodynamics (SED), consistency with the principle of Lorentz covariance and with the magnitude of the Planck constant requires it to have a much larger value of 10113 Joules per cubic meter. See vacuum catastrophe.
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The theory considers vacuum to implicitly have the same properties as a particle, such as spin or polarization in the case of light, energy, and so on. According to the theory, most of these properties cancel out on average leaving the vacuum empty in the literal sense of the word. One important exception, however, is the vacuum energy or the vacuum expectation value of the energy. The quantization of a simple harmonic oscillator requires the lowest possible energy, or zero-point energy of such an oscillator to be:
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 in most cases 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. However, alternate explanations for the Casimir have since been proposed.
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. In the special case of vacuum energy, general relativity stipulates that the gravitational field is proportional to ρ-3p (where ρ is the mass-energy density, and p is the pressure). Quantum theory of the vacuum further stipulates that the pressure of the zero-state vacuum energy is always negative and equal to ρ. Thus, the total of ρ-3p becomes -2ρ: A negative value. This calculation implies a repulsive gravitational field, giving rise to expansion, if indeed the vacuum ground state has non-zero energy. 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.
In Stochastic Electrodynamics, the energy density is taken to be a classical random noise wave field which consists of real electromagnetic noise waves propagating isotropically in all directions. The energy in such a wave field would seem to be accessible, e.g., with nothing more complicated than a directional coupler. The most obvious difficulty appears to be the spectral distribution of the energy, which compatibility with Lorentz invariance requires to take the form Kf3, where K is a constant and f denotes frequency. It follows that the energy and momentum flux in this wave field only becomes significant at extremely short wavelengths where directional coupler technology is currently lacking. History
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 attempts at a Grand unification theory and to use observations of the Universe to confirm one or another version. 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.
Also, see The Vacuum Problem.