Ethan Siegel Sells “Something from Nothing”

Image copyright: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Dotter.

Ethan Siegel explains how “the 70-year-old quantum prediction is coming true as something is created out of nothing”:

Anyone who said: “You can’t get anything from nothing” must never have learned quantum physics. As long as you have empty space – the ultimate physical nothingness – simply manipulating it in the right way will inevitably result in something emerging. When two particles collide in the abyss of empty space, additional particle-antiparticle pairs are sometimes created. Take a meson and try to rip the quark away from the antiquark, and a new set of particle-antiparticle pairs will be pulled out of the empty space between them. And theoretically, an electromagnetic field strong enough can rip particles and antiparticles out of the vacuum itself, even with no initial particles or antiparticles at all.

Until now it has been assumed that these effects would require the highest particle energies of all, which are only available in high-energy particle physics experiments or in extreme astrophysical environments. But in early 2022, sufficiently powerful electric fields were generated in a simple laboratory setup to take advantage of graphene’s unique properties and allow particle-antiparticle pairs to spontaneously form out of thin air. The prediction that this should be possible is 70 years old: it goes back to one of the founders of quantum field theory, Julian Schwinger. The Schwinger effect is now verified and teaches us how the universe really makes something out of nothing.

You can read the rest below think big. According to his biography, Siegel is a “science communicator who is committed to physics and astronomy at various universities”. He’s gotten quite adept at blogging about physics from an “establishment” position. Part of its appeal is always supporting the status quo, which in today’s world means the mainstream media, Nature editors and the like. And in relation to the origin of the universe, the position of the status quo is “everything but God.” So, of course, Ethan will offer the Lawrence Krauss gimmick of selling “a universe out of thin air.”

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Changes to the dictionary

To push this forward, he needs to make some pretty big changes to our normal dictionary definition of what “nothing” means, just like Krauss did and was ridiculed for doing. The new element is graphs. Graphene is said to be so wonderful that it turns electric fields into particles. But do I need to point out that graphene is a layer of carbon atoms? And the “holes” are actually displacements of carbon atoms? So we make waves out of carbon atoms and call that “something out of nothing”. For real?

Here’s an example of the thinking we used to joke about. The joke is: photons don’t exist. They are really just the absence of Darkons. A flashlight sucks up Darkons, and that’s why you think there’s a ray of light going out. Do not believe me? Then test it by cutting open a dead battery from the flashlight. Sure enough, it’s black, just like you’d expect if it were full of Darkons. So of course it was dead.

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This joke uses the same logic as Ethan.

matter and energy

What about particle physics and mesons and all that? It is true that E = mc2, so we can make matter out of energy and vice versa. We’ve been doing this since the uranium atom was split by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1939 and the pieces weighed less than the uranium atom. Because the forces that hold the uranium atom together are quite strong and therefore massive. But mind you, the fields are massive, and it’s just a trick of physics to approximate these forces and fields with subatomic particles. What you do is modify potentials and call those modifications “particles”. They don’t make particles; You manipulate fields.

Ethan says we can use these forces in a graphene sheet, while it’s much harder to work with uranium cores. True, but that just means, “If I make my tin ring by hitting it with a hammer, I’ll make phonons out of nothing.” It’s not nothing, it’s a layer of graphene. If you want to call waves of moving atoms “particles,” you’re actually making a press release out of nothing.

The Kasimir Force

And now a comment about the Casimir Troupe, which is also summoned by Ethan. It’s the ideal field for crazy YouTube weirdos. If you hold two conductors close together, they attract each other with a 1/R5 Attraction that Hendrik Casimir attributed to “virtual particles” emerging from the vacuum between the plates.

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First of all, virtual particles are just a mathematical trick to truncate an infinite sum that describes the field. So they are virtual in more ways than one. Second, there is a perfectly valid way to describe this attraction without invoking virtual particles: the random motion of electrons in one plate creates transient dipole fields that induce transient dipole fields in the other plate, so the attraction has a thermally sustained dipole-dipole Interaction is instabilities.

I had a colleague who owned a business that etched silicon into miniature optical components. An inventor came to him with a design to use the Casimir power to get work done. Based on this force, they built a perpetual motion machine out of etched silicon. Guess what? It did not work. And he’s a smart man.

Another theoretical physicist was also looking for virtual particles that affect starlight. Stars (and our Sun) emit correlated light, but the kiloparsecs of space should generate enough virtual collision particles to decouple it. So he looked for decoherence. No, not there either. So no, I think invoking the Casimir effect is evidence that you don’t understand thermodynamics and have too much faith in the existence of ‘virtual particles’.

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