Understanding the nature of empty space and why is a perfect vacuum impossible in nature

One of the most amazing things about atoms is that they are mainly empty space. Almost 99.9% of the atom is empty! why is a perfect vacuum impossible in nature? what is the nature of a perfect vacuum and nothingness? is space a perfect vacuum?

Let us find out what the science and reality have to say…..

nature of vacuum

If an atom was as wide as your arms space, then the electrons would just be whizzing around in the volume enclosed by your fingertips meanwhile the nucleus would be sitting in the centre and its diameter would be smaller than the width of a single hair.

nature of vacuum

So all of the atoms that make up you and me and seemingly solid things in the universe are mostly empty space and vacuum, so its of utmost importance we understand what is the nature of vacuum itself.

Now, this is incredible but what is more fascinating is that empty space is not truly empty.

So let us discuss aboutnothing”, because it turns out that “nothing’ is one of the most interesting something!!

But the question is, how do we study nothing?

nature of vacuum

An empty box still contains something in it. Molecules of air, dust , infrared light from its warm environment, , the ambient electromagnetic buzz from the surrounding environment and a stream of exotic particles from the surrounding cosmic radiation.

nature of vacuum

But what if we suck out every last molecule of air and chill the jar to absolute zero and shield it from all external radiation?

What do you think?

You would definitely think that the jar now is truly empty in all senses, right?

nature of vacuum

But it turns out that empty space is far from nothing.
We know it is impossible to reduce any substance to its absolute zero temperature. 0 Kelvin means no movement what so ever, in a substance’s constituent particles.

nature of vacuum

But that perfect stillness implies that the particles position and momentum are simultaneously perfectly defined and that is impossible according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

nature of vacuum

Fix a particles position and its momentum (therefore its motion) becomes a quantum blur of many possible momentas.

nature of vacuum

This results in a real minimum average kinetic energy called the zero point energy. So the walls of our empty jar will radiate as a faint glow.

nature of vacuum

But hypothetically what would a perfectly empty space look like? why is a perfect vacuum impossible in nature?

Far from the nearest particle of matter and radiation

The answer will bring us closer to understanding the nature of space itself.

Our modern understanding of the quantum nature of vacuum is described by the quantum field theory. In short Quantum Field Theory states that, space itself is comprised of fundamental quantum fields, one for each elementary particle. Those fields oscillate and vibrate with different energies and those oscillations are the electrons, quarks, neutrinos, photons, gluons, etc that comprise the stuff of our universe.

nature of vacuum

Now these fields are quantum fields which means their oscillations can’t just have any odd energy. They can only be excited in quantum chunks, integer multiples of some baseline energy in each quantum state. So each combination of particle properties is a ladder of energy levels.

A bit like electron orbitals in an atom. Each new line on the ladder represents the existence of one additional particle in the quantum state.

nature of vacuum

In fact the math of QFT is all about going up and down this particle ladder using the so-called annihilations and creation operators,

nature of vacuum

The bottom of this energy ladder corresponds to these quantum oscillators having no energy, which simply means there are no particles in the given quantum state.

We call this the “vacuum-state” of the field.

Inside a perfect vacuum, all of the field in all location should be in the vacuum state or exactly at zero energy at all times. But here we run up against the Hisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

The Nature of Vacuum

We saw that it was impossible to simultaneously fix the position and momentum of the particle. Well, in the same way, it is also impossible to simultaneously perfectly define the energy and time of the particle.

The Nature of Vacuum

The more tightly we define the time window for the behavior of a quantum oscillator, the less certain we can be about its energy state in that time window.

On extremely short time scales a quantum field can exist as a blur of many energies.

In a perfect vacuum, the most likely state of the blur is the zero energy vacuum state. But sometimes the field finds itself with enough energy to create a particle, seemingly out of nothing.

We call these virtual particles , and they seem to be the machinery under the hood of all particle interactions in the universe, or atleast as described by Quantum Field Theory

For example, the QFT describes the EM force as the exchange of virtual photons between charged particles.

The Nature of Vacuum

Virtual particles are the links governing all particle interactions in the famous Feynman diagrams. But to properly calculate an interaction of real particles, every imaginable behavior of the connecting virtual particles must be accounted, which also includes the seemingly impossible behavior.
These virtual particles play a crucial role in our analysis of the nature of the perfect vacuum.

For example in QFT, virtual particles can have any mass , any speeds, including speeds faster than the speed of light and can even travel backwards in time.

The ambiguous realness of virtual particles seems to grant them some surreal freedom, but there are restrictions,

For example, quantum conservation laws must be obeyed so most virtual particles are created in particle-antiparticle pairs

The Nature of Vacuum

But the virtual particles can exist only for the instant allowed by the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and, higher the energy of the particle the shorter it will exist.

The restrictions, believe it or not, is also responsible for the range of the fundamental forces. For example, the massless photons can have the tiniest of possible energy and so virtual photons for any amount of time can carry the electromagnetic force over long distances.

nature of vacuum

On the other hand, it always takes the bottom line chunk of energy to create a gluon, the carrier of the strong nuclear force, because gluons have the mass, that means the limit to how long virtual gluons can exist and travel, which in turn makes the strong nuclear force a very short range force.

The Nature of Vacuum

Well, it can be argued that virtual particles are just mathematical tools to describe the dynamic vacuum and no such particles actually exist, or these are the only quantum possibility of particles which somehow govern the interaction of real particles, without themselves being burdened with reality.

But how do we verify the existence of these elusive particles?

The Nature of Vacuum

They live in the interval between the measurement of real particles.

By definition, they can only exist when we are not watching. But they do none the less leave their ghostly mark.

The 1st hint of the existence of virtual particles came in the year of 1947 when Wills Lamb

noticed a tiny energy difference between the two electron orbitals that comprised the 2nd energy level of the hydrogen atom.

The Nature of Vacuum

According to the best existing theory of that time, orbitals should have exactly the same energy.

The slight difference now called the Lamb Shift inspired theorists to dig deeper and it didn’t take them long. In the same year German physicist Hans Bethe successfully explained vacuum energy.

Virtual particles and antiparticle pairs in space between the orbitals in the nucleus align themselves with  the electric field. This partially shields the orbiting electrons from the positive charge of the nucleus. The amount of shielding being slightly different between there orbits.

The calculation of the size of the lamb shift is now one of the most accurate predictions in all of physics.

Another way to hunt for virtual particles is, through their bulk effect on the vacuum.

If quantum fields are a buzz with particles popping in and out of existence, then the so called zero point energy of those fields should be zero, empty space should have some real energy. It should have vacuum energy.

In 1948 the Dutch physicist Hendric Casimir came up with a brilliant scheme to detect these virtual particles and vacuum energy.

The Nature of Vacuum

He imagined two conducting plates brought so close together that only certain virtual photons could exist between the plates. In the same way the guitar string of particular length only resonates with waves of certain frequencies, and the only non-resonant virtual photon would be excluded reducing the vacuum energy between the plates.

The Nature of Vacuum

However on the outer surface of the plate, all the frequencies of virtual photons are allowed, the higher vacuum energy outside compared to the inside of the plate should result in a pressure differential that pushes the plates together.

The Casimir effect was only successfully measured in 1996. When separated by less than a micrometer the conducting surfaces were found to be drawn together by a force that matched the prediction of the QFT. Now while there are other explanations for this force, but still this has been taken as the strong evidence that vacuum energy is real.

Now neither the Casimir effect not the lamb shift allow measurement of the absolute strength of vacuum energy. They just measure its relative effect inside VS outside the conducting plates or between neighboring atoms.

So how much vacuum energy is there?

Well there are 2 main ways to estimate this :

  1. Through observation
  2. Through theoretical predictions

The observation is that accelerating expansion of the universe. It is hypothesized that dark energy itself maybe vacuum energy. If so, then the amount of vacuum energy required to produce the observed acceleration is tiny, around one-onehundreth of a million erg/cm3.

The theoretical calculation of the strength of the vacuum energy is a little higher than that. Infact it is 120 orders of magnitude higher. This crazy difference between observation and calculation is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of physics.

A simulation of empty space was made by crunching up calculation from the Quantum Chromo Dynamics, the theory of fundamental particle called quarks, which are the building blocks of protons, neutrons and how they interact with each other.

The Nature of Vacuum

The above simulation shows the energy density of the gluon field fluctuations. The deeper colors simply indicate more energy density.

what we see above is a bubbling soup of quantum field fluctuation that come and go incredibly quickly. The frame rate of this particular simulation is 10^24 fps.

Now that is truly highspeed!!!

The dimensions of this simulation box is (2.4*3.6*2.4)fm , barely space for two protons to fit.

This simulation goes on to show that , what we think is empty space is actually full of such quark gluon fields.

QFT with its dependence on virtual particles and vacuum fluctuations is one of the most successful theories and yet its prediction on the strength of vacuum energy seems to be so wildly off.

This is actually pretty exciting! It means we still don’t get the entire picture of our universe and provides us with a subtle clue at the next step we need to take.

so coming back to the question, “why is a perfect vacuum impossible in nature?

The answer by now must be evident.

More articles will be coming soon on The Nature of Vacuum.

please leave a comment below or ask any question you want to regarding this article, “The Nature of  Perfect Vacuum” .

I would highly recommend a few books that would really help you to know  in depth regarding the cosmos:

    1. A Brief History of the Universe: From Ancient Babylon to the Big Bang (Brief Histories)
    1. The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics (Sterling Milestones)
    1. Cosmos
    1. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (Routledge Classics)
    1. Black Holes: The Reith Lectures
  1. The Oxford Companion to Cosmology (Oxford Quick Reference)

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nature of vacuum


I am Mayukh Bagchi. 4th year Undergraduate Engineering student at SRM University , physics and in general Astrophysics is my passion and I want to pursue the same. This blog is dedicated to serve the community with honest and clear insights to the cosmos.


Udayaditya Jaykumar · July 27, 2018 at 3:21 pm

Keep up the good work man!

    Mayukh · July 27, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks Udayy

SOCRATUS · July 29, 2018 at 3:40 am

The Universe from Nothing: T=0K.
Why everything was started from Nothing ?
Because there is fundamental fact in Nature :
The critical density in the whole Universe is so small
that it cannot ‘close’ the Universe into sphere.
And therefore the Universe as whole is flat – infinite flat.
But what to do with ‘infinity’ physicists don’t know
and they try to escape (throw out) concept of ‘infinity’.
I say that infinite (eternal) nothing has one physical
parameter: T=0K and therefore nothing is not nothingness.
We can use many theories to understand condition of T=0K continuum :

1) Theory of ideal gas ( temperature is T=0K )
2) Hawking black hole radiation ( temperature is T=0K )
3) Bose-Einstein condensate ( temperature is T=0K )
4) Dark energy ( nothing is some kind of infinite energy )
5) Dark matter ( consist of virtual particles, antiparticles )
6) SRT ( explain behavior of quantum particles in nothingness )
7) QT ( explain the reason and laws of quantum particles behavior )

These theories are subject for rethinking and ,by the way,
such interpretation obeys Occam’s razor.
Scientists say:
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) was proved
that Big Bang theory is correct.
My opinion.
Have you see the waves on the surface of sea ?
But deep down of the sea , you know, the picture is different.
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR ) is only surface of
infinite zero vacuum.
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) is a false vacuum.
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR ) is result of work
(fluctuation) of virtual particles.
Deep down of the ‘Dirac’s sea’ is state of zero vacuum T=0K
with potential negative virtual particles: – E=Mc^2.
And according to the ‘Law of conservation and transformation energy/mass’
these virtual negative particles can change their potential state
into real active positive particles with energy E=hf.
( Casimir effect, Lamb shift )
Quantum effects (fluctuations) are dominate in the Universe.
Best wishes
Israel Sadovnik Socratus

SADOVNIK SOCRATUS · July 29, 2018 at 3:43 am

Brief characteristic of Vacuum: T=0K. ( by Israel Socratus)
It was, it is, it will be forever an infinite /eternal continuum T=0K.
The Material World began its existence and evolution from T=0K.
All Material world is hanged up under / on Zero Vacuum.
Today physicists think that the Universe as whole has temperature:
T= 2,7K. They know very well that parameter T=2,7K is not constant.
It is temporal and goes down and in the future it will come to T= 0K.
But they don’t know what to do with infinite T=0K and therefore
banned T=0K from logical thought.
T=0K is not empty / void infinite continuum.
The void/vacuum T=0K gives birth to an infinite numbers of
virtual particles (antiparticles, dark matter , dark energy and “zoo”
of elementary particles) and they exist in this Kingdom of Vacuum.
Which geometrical form can have virtual particles (antiparticles,
dark matter , dark energy and “zoo” of elementary particles)
in the absolute reference frame T= 0K ?

The answer is: “They must be flat particles.”
Because absolute endless infinite void – vacuum T=0K obeys the
laws of “Ideal Gas” and therefore . . . according to Charle’s law
(and the consequence of the third law of thermodynamics) as the
thermodynamic temperature of a system approaches absolute zero
the volume of particles approach zero too.
It means the particles at T=0K must have flat forms.
The most ideal flat geometrical form is form of circle: pi= c /d =3,14 . . . .
These circle –particles are without thickness. It means, we cannot reach
the T=0K and we cannot reach the density of these vacuum-particles.
We cannot observe vacuum – particles with tools, but thanks to
mathematics (physical-mathematical laws) we can understand their
real geometrical forms.
The “strings particles” is also flat particles and don’t have thickness.
But to be “string” is needed forces in two different sides.
Without forces the “string” will take form of circle.
And in circle all forces in all different directions are equal and
therefore the circle–particle is in an ideal equilibrium (potential) state.
Such equilibrium-potential state can be changed easily with a
thin/weak quantum force.
Once again.
Circle-particle says to string-particles: “I am, circle, the real quantum
particle and my existence is confirmed by physical-mathematical laws
and you, string, don’t have such laws, such confirmation. You are only
private invention of theoretical thought.”
When very small changes appear in absolute void of “Ideal Gas”
( T=0K ) something was happened. Pressures, densities,
temperatures were changed and can be observed.
(Casimir effect, vacuum polarization, Lamb shift, . . ..etc.)
These “very small changes” are Quantum changes.
These very small Quantum changes ( h and h*bar) make great
difference in the Kingdom of Absolute Vacuum and Nature.
====. . .
Best wishes.
Israel Sadovnik. Socratus.

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