The Casimir Effect: a force from nothing

the ball moves toward a smooth plate in response to energy fluctuations in the vacuum of empty space

Yesterday’s APOD captures a quantum phenomenon called the Casimir effect, which could theoretically stabilize a wormhole to allow faster than light travel.  But at least for now, the interest in the Casimir effect has some very practical implications for nanotechnology.

Since the Casimir force is the ultimate cause of friction in the nano-world, being able to manipulate the Casimir force in nanoscale devices could lead to zero-friction nanomachines (that could levitate).  And if wormholes and levitation aren’t cool enough, the phenomenon was discovered while studying… mayonnaise!

“The fact that an attractive force exists between two conducting metal plates was first predicted in 1948 by Hendrik Casimir of Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands. At the time, however, Casimir was studying the properties of “colloidal solutions”. These are viscous materials, such as paint and mayonnaise, that contain micron-sized particles in a liquid matrix. The properties of such solutions are determined by van der Waals forceslong-range, attractive forces that exist between neutral atoms and molecules.

“…Casimir discovered that the interaction between two neutral molecules could be correctly described only if the fact that light travels at a finite speed was taken into account.  …He then asked himself what would happen if there were two mirrors – rather than two molecules – facing each other in a vacuum. It was this work that led to his famous prediction of an attractive force between reflecting plates.”

The Casimir effect is rooted in one of those spooky sounding real world manifestations of quantum mechanics, namely that even an absolute vacuum is not empty, but bristling with virtual particles that constantly pop in and out of existence and, while here, buzz around for an undefined time. This phenomenon gives vacuum an energy, the so-called zero-point energy.

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One Response to The Casimir Effect: a force from nothing

  1. On vacuum and virtual particles, I think no poet puts it better than this:

    “…Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
    Nor any place be empty quite,
    Therefore I thinke my breast hath all
    Those peeces still, though they be not unite…”

    “The Broken Heart.”
    Poet John Donne 21 January 1572 – 31 March 1631)

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