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What is Zero Point Energy?

Jul 5th 2010 at 1:24 AM

According to Wikipedia... (selected text)

In physics, the zero-point energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical physical system may have and is the energy of the ground state. The quantum mechanical system that encapsulates this energy is the zero-point field. The concept was first proposed by Albert Einstein and Otto Stern in 1913. The term "zero-point energy" is a calque of the German Nullpunktenergie. All quantum mechanical systems have a zero-point energy. The term arises commonly in reference to the ground state of the quantum harmonic oscillator and its null oscillations.

Zero-point energy is sometimes used as a synonym for the vacuum energy, an amount of energy associated with the vacuum of empty space. When the term is used in this way, sometimes it is referred to as the quantum vacuum zero point energy. In cosmology, the vacuum energy is one possible explanation for the cosmological constant. The variation in zero-point energy as the boundaries of a region of vacuum move leads to the Casimir effect, which is observable in nanoscale devices.

A related term is zero-point field, which is the lowest energy state of a field; i.e. its ground state, which is non-zero.

A phenomenon that is commonly presented as evidence for the existence of zero-point energy in vacuum is the Casimir effect, proposed in 1948 by Dutch physicist Hendrik B. G. Casimir (Philips Research), who considered the quantized electromagnetic field between a pair of grounded, neutral metal plates. The vacuum energy contains contributions from all wavelengths, except those excluded by the spacing between plates. As the plates draw together, more wavelengths are excluded and the vacuum energy decreases. The decrease in energy means there must be a force doing work on the plates as they move. This force has been measured and found to be in good agreement with the theory. However, there is still some debate on whether vacuum energy explains the Casimir effect as the force can be explained equally well by a different theory involving charge-current interactions (the radiation-reaction picture), as argued by Robert Jaffe of MIT.

In cosmology, the zero-point energy offers an intriguing possibility for explaining the speculative positive values of the proposed cosmological constant. In brief, if the energy is "really there", then it should exert a gravitational force. In general relativity, mass and energy are equivalent; both produce a gravitational field. One obvious difficulty with this association is that the zero-point energy of the vacuum is absurdly large. Naively, it is infinite, but only differences in energy are physically measurable. The infinity can be removed by renormalization. In all practical calculations, this is how the infinity is handled. It is also arguable that new physics takes over at the Planck scale, and that the energy growth is cut off at that point.

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