One Problem With Quantum Theory

Quantum Theory is one of our most successful scientific theories. Its predictions have been verified, often to an extreme level of accuracy. It has helped us to develop technologies that we rely on, that have brought us such wonders as the laser and the transistor. Without Quantum Theory, our technology would be painfully limited. Quantum Theory has helped us move forward.

There is, however, a wee problem that sometimes doesn’t get talked about. As with anything, Quantum Theory isn’t perfect. While many of its predictions are amazingly accurate, there is one that is off. In fact, this is the greatest error in all of scientific history.

There is something called the energy content of “empty” space. According to Quantum Theory, space is never totally empty. There are always virtual particles popping into and out of existence. A pair of particles will simply appear, and almost immediately the pair will annihilate each other. These particles don’t interact with the Universe, but they do give the vacuum of space a non-zero, positive energy. They’re called virtual particles, which I gather means something like, they exist enough to screw up our calculations, but not enough to be of any use. Space at this level is sometimes called quantum foam.

Physicists can calculate the amount of energy that should be involved with these virtual particles. They arrive at a value that is about 10120 times greater than the measured value. 10120 is 1 followed by 120 zeroes. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

I see that this string of zeroes goes right off the page. I might be able to fix it, but I decided to leave it in to emphasize my point. This number is huge.

This number is difficult to grasp. It’s so big it’s meaningless to humans. There are said to be about 1080 atoms in the observable Universe. This number is beyond that by a factor that is still beyond our abilities to visualize. It is the biggest disagreement between theory and measurement. It is known as the Vacuum Catastrophe.

Like its cousin the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, the Vacuum Catastrophe has caused much consternation among physicists. And like its cousin, solving this problem is likely to help advance physics in unpredictable ways. In the meantime, if someone is getting all arrogant and “sciency” on you, just mention “Vacuum Catastrophe.”

This number has been responsible for one of the more ridiculous claims about Quantum Theory and energy. Some people say that the vacuum energy of space is so great, that the energy found in a volume the size of a teacup could boil all the oceans of Earth. Sounds great, like free energy for billions of years, even if we all use air conditioning. But it’s not true.

Photo of Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

That huge number comes from this Vacuum Catastrophe. It’s the calculated number, which is wrong. As Richard Fenyman, the renowned Quantum Physicist said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” So much for boiling the oceans.

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