Quantum Vacuum State

Quantum vacuum state is the quantum state with the lowest possible energy. Generally, it contains no physical particles.

The QED vacuum of quantum electrodynamics was the first vacuum of quantum field theory to be developed. QED originated in the 1930s, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was reformulated by Feynman, Tomonaga, and Schwinger, who jointly received the Nobel prize for this work in 1965.

If the quantum field theory can be accurately described through perturbation theory, then the properties of the vacuum are analogous to the properties of the ground state of a quantum mechanical harmonic oscillator, or more accurately, the ground state of a measurement problem.

In this case the vacuum expectation value (VEV) of any field operator vanishes. For quantum field theories in which perturbation theory breaks down at low energies (for example, Quantum chromodynamics or the BCS theory of superconductivity) field operators may have non-vanishing vacuum expectation values called condensates.

In the Standard Model, the non-zero vacuum expectation value of the Higgs field, arising from spontaneous symmetry breaking, is the mechanism by which the other fields in the theory acquire mass.

According to present-day understanding of what is called the vacuum state or the quantum vacuum, it is “by no means a simple empty space”.

According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of the quantum field.

The presence of virtual particles can be rigorously based upon the non-commutation of the quantized electromagnetic fields. Non-commutation means that although the average values of the fields vanish in a quantum vacuum, their variances do not.

The term “vacuum fluctuations” refers to the variance of the field strength in the minimal energy state, and is described picturesquely as evidence of “virtual particles”. It is sometimes attempted to provide an intuitive picture of virtual particles, or variances, based upon the Heisenberg energy-time uncertainty principle.

Vacuum fluctuations

Arguing along the lines that the short lifetime of virtual particles allows the “borrowing” of large energies from the vacuum and thus permits particle generation for short times. Although the phenomenon of virtual particles is accepted, this interpretation of the energy-time uncertainty relation is not universal.

The vacuum state is associated with a zero-point energy, and this zero-point energy (equivalent to the lowest possible energy state) has measurable effects. In the laboratory, it may be detected as the Casimir effect.

Vacuum fluctuations (in the red ring) amplified by spontaneous parametric down-conversion

In physical cosmology, the energy of the cosmological vacuum appears as the cosmological constant. In fact, the energy of a cubic centimeter of empty space has been calculated figuratively to be one trillionth of an erg (or 0.6 eV).

An outstanding requirement imposed on a potential Theory of Everything is that the energy of the quantum vacuum state must explain the physically observed cosmological constant.

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