(ORDO NEWS) — Called the Fulling-Davis-Unruh effect (or sometimes just the Unruh effect), this eerie glow of radiation emerging from a vacuum is akin to the mysterious Hawking radiation thought to surround black holes.
Only in this case is the product of acceleration, not gravity.
For now, the effect remains a purely theoretical phenomenon that we are unable to measure. But that may soon change with the discovery of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Back to basics, they demonstrated that it was possible to induce the Unruh effect so that it could be studied directly under less extreme conditions.
However, the real prize would be the discovery of new horizons in experiments aimed at combining two powerful but incompatible physical theories – one describing the behavior of particles, and the other concerning the curvature of space and time.
The Unruh effect sits right on the edge of quantum laws and general relativity .
According to quantum physics, an atom, all alone in a vacuum, would have to wait for an incoming photon to pass through an electromagnetic field and cause its electrons to wiggle before it could consider itself illuminated.
If we consider relativity, there is a way to cheat. By simply accelerating, an atom can experience tiny fluctuations in the surrounding electromagnetic field in the form of low-energy photons transformed by a kind of Doppler effect.
This interaction between the relative experience of waves in a quantum field and the oscillation of the electrons of an atom depends on the total time of their frequencies. Any quantum effects that are independent of time are usually ignored given that on paper they tend to cancel out over the long run.
As the atom is accelerated, these normally minor conditions become much more significant and can actually become dominant effects.
By moving the atom in the right way, such as with a powerful laser, scientists have shown that it is possible to use these alternative interactions to make moving atoms experience the Unruh effect without the need for large accelerations.
As a bonus, the team also found that, given the right trajectory, an accelerating atom can become transparent to incoming light, effectively suppressing its ability to absorb or emit certain photons.
Beyond science fiction applications, by identifying ways to influence the ability of an accelerating atom to interact with ripples in a vacuum, perhaps we can come up with new ways to find where quantum physics and general relativity give way to a new theoretical framework.
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