Nothing does not exist

Dr. Who stretches and compresses time, and space too of course. But in our thought experiment, our box cannot have light inside. TARDIS image provided by Sceptre. Background galaxy image: Dark Energy Survey. Composite image: Diana Brandonisio

That title is another way of saying: “There’s no such thing as an empty box.” Let’s try to make one with a “thought experiment.” Einstein did these; they do not have to be practical, just imaginable. He came up with the theory of relativity when thinking about overtaking a light beam.

Think of a tiny metal box, about 1 millimeter (1/25th inch) on a side. Close it in air, and it will contain about a trillion molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. Imagine a perfect vacuum pump extracting every last molecule.

Is the box then empty? No atoms left, but it is full of electromagnetic fields and radiation.

On Earth there will be a gravitational field in the box, so let’s take it far into space and let it float freely.  Magnetic fields can be easily shielded, and external electric fields stay outside.

What about electromagnetic waves? It will be dark inside, but all surfaces radiate black-body radiation depending on their temperature. Your body emits infrared radiation with a peak wavelength near 10 micrometers, making you visible in the dark with an infrared camera. The radiation from the walls of our box peaks at about 20 micrometers, the width of a fine human hair. To exclude that radiation, we can make the box small enough to fit inside a hair and at near absolute zero temperature (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit). In outer space it will naturally be that cold.

Our tiny box is now as empty as we can make it. A cosmic ray particle will cross it occasionally. But we cannot prevent thousands of neutrinos from the sun passing through even this hair-size box every second. Neutrinos can pass through a light-year of lead! But they zip through at nearly the speed of light, so in any given microsecond our box may have none.

Congratulations, your tiny cold metal box floating in space with a microsecond exposure time is empty. Champagne! Then you remember dark energy and the Higgs field. OK, let’s say they are the true vacuum, the lowest possible energy state. Cheers!

If you made the exposure time much shorter, a billionth of a trillionth of a second, interesting things start to happen. Electron-positron pairs pop into existence. Shorter still, and heavier particles appear, according to Heisenberg’s energy-time uncertainty principle. The vacuum is teeming with activity if you look hard enough, using particle accelerators. The harder you look, the more you see.

This is a version of an article that originally appeared in Positively Naperville.