Zero-point energy

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Zero-point energy of harmonic oscillator

Zero-point energy (ZPE) or ground state energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system may have. Unlike in classical mechanics, quantum systems constantly fluctuate in their lowest energy state due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. As well as atoms and molecules, the empty space of the vacuum has these properties. According to modern physics, the universe is not made of isolated particles, but continuous fluctuating fields: matter fields, whose quanta are fermions (i.e. leptons and quarks), and force fields, whose quanta are bosons (e.g. photons and gluons). All these fields have zero-point energy. These fluctuating zero-point fields lead to a kind of reintroduction of an aether in physics, since some systems can detect the existence of this energy. However this aether cannot be thought of as a physical media as it is Lorentz invariant so there is no contradiction with Einstein's theory of special relativity.

Physics currently lacks a full theoretical model for understanding zero-point energy, in particular the discrepancy between theorized and observed vacuum energy is a source of major contention. Physicists Richard Feynman and John Wheeler calculated the zero-point radiation of the vacuum to be an order of magnitude greater than nuclear energy, with one teacup containing enough energy to boil all the world's oceans. Yet according to Einstein's theory of general relativity any such energy would gravitate and the experimental evidence from both the expansion of the universe, dark energy and the Casimir effect show any such energy to be exceptionally weak. A popular proposal that attempts to address this issue is to say that the fermion field has a negative zero-point energy while the boson field has positive zero-point energy and thus these energies somehow cancel each other out. This idea would be true if superstring theory were an exact symmetry of nature. However, the LHC at CERN has so far found no evidence to support supersymmetry. Moreover, it is know that if supersymmetry is valid at all, it is at most a broken symmetry, only true at very high energies, and no one has been able to show a theory where zero-point cancellations occur in the low energy universe we observe today. This discrepancy is known as the cosmological constant problem and it is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in physics. Many physicists believe that "the vacuum holds the key to a full understanding of nature".


Quotes are arranged alphabetically by author
  • The light-quantum has the peculiarity that it apparently ceases to exist when it is in one of its stationary states, namely, the zero state, in which its momentum and therefore also its energy, are zero. When a light-quantum is absorbed it can be considered to jump into this zero state, and when one is emitted it can be considered to jump from the zero state to one in which it is physically in evidence, so that it appears to have been created. Since there is no limit to the number of light-quanta that may be created in this way, we must suppose that there are an infinite number of light quanta in the zero state...
  • In his Theorie der Wärmestrahlung, Planck emphasized that the existence of a zero-point energy was completely foreign to classical physics. However, it seemed to be a ghost-like entity which it was difficult to connect to experiments.
  • I fear that your hatred of the zero-point energy extends to the electrodynamic emission hypothesis that I introduced and that leads to it. But what’s to be done? For my part, I hate discontinuity of energy even more than discontinuity of emission.
  • We here face a fundamental problem of outstanding importance. Its solution may still require a radical change in our theories beyond our present imagining.
    • Dennis Sciama (1991). "The Physical Significance of the Vacuum State of a Quantum Field". in Saunders, Simon; Brown, Harvey R.. The Philosophy of Vacuum. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 157. ISBN 0198244495. OCLC 774073198. 
  • From quantum theory there follows the existence of so called zero-point oscillations; for example each oscillator in its lowest is not completely at rest but always is moving about its equilibrium position. Therefore electromagnetic oscillations also can never cease completely. Thus the quantum nature of the electromagnetic field has as its consequence zero point oscillations of the field strength in the lowest energy state, in which there are no light quanta in space... The zero point oscillations act on an electron in the same way as ordinary electrical oscillations do. They can change the eigenstate of the electron, but only in a transition to a state with the lowest energy, since empty space can only take away energy, and not give it up. In this way spontaneous radiation arises as a consequence of the existence of these unique field strengths corresponding to zero point oscillations. Thus spontaneous radiation is induced radiation of light quanta produced by zero point oscillations of empty space.

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