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Quantum Foam: a Virtual Particle Phenomenon


lindsh23

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blog-0646087001429206864.jpgQuantum physics leaves some of the craziest theories floating out there, between relativity, gravitational lensing, and black holes. But... what about virtual particles? Particles that can exist one second, and disappear in the blink of an eye? Well, physicists have discovered it. It's called the quantum foam effect.

How can this be? Well, beginning with the big bang, we know that when particles expand, electrons are shot away from each other. This shooting motion does not just include the electrons, but also the photon exchange which occurs between the two. A photon must be emitted in order to scatter electrons. In order to follow the laws which govern the universe, energy and momentum conservation must be conserved during this emission. However, when the momentum conservation is calculated between the 2 electrons and the photon... it is found the photon actually has mass, therefore defying the laws of physics! These virtual particles have the "wrong" energy and momentum for a rapid period of time, and then they simply vanish. They are there long enough to defy the very nature of the universe, but disappear so that they do not cause any real disturbance.

These virtual particles can also be explained by the Uncertainty Principle. I read somewhere that how virtual particles work can be compared to a bank loaning money and paying your bills: When you give your money to the bank, it is expected that the money you put in matches money you get out and use to pay your bills. But, in actuality, the bank loans out that money, and for a brief period of time you have a "wrong" amount. The more money loaned out, the less time the money has to be "wrong" before you notice. Virtual particles act the same way: the larger they are, the less stable they are, and the less time they exist.

These virtual particles appear all over the universe! That "empty space" that we think exists beyond our Earth? That vacuum? In actuality, it is filled with little bubbles of particles coming in and out of existence; hence, the name "Quantum Foam". Quantum Foam was discovered because all of those virtual photons create wave energy, since photons have wave-particle duality. The magnetic field of empty space was actually measured to be about 0.01% off of the estimated value of what would have been actual empty space, which was enough to prove that something strange was happening out there.

Virtual Particles also play a role in Hawking Radiation. Instead of becoming a massive photon, virtual particles can also exist as another electron and a positron. When quantum foam exists near the event horizon of a black hole, one of the two particles of the pair could get stuck in the black hole, while the other escapes, creating the radiation Steven Hawking had been trying to prove. Over time, more and more energy would escape than is captured, causing the black hole to evaporate.

Quantum foam is so interesting to me because it ties together many of the quantum topics I had researched for previous blog posts. Imagine all of the virtual particles floating around in space, only to disappear and never return fractions of a second later! That is all. Until next time, Fizzix Community, until next time.

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