What is a Vacuum?

A vacuum is not nothing.    It is only a region of three-dimensional space that is entirely devoid of matter, entirely devoid of particles.

The best laboratory vacuum contains about 25 particles (molecules, atoms) per cubic centimeter (cm3).

The atmosphere on the surface of the Moon (if you can call it that) contains a lot more particles than the best laboratory vacuum: about 40,000 particles per cm3.  This extremely tenuous lunar atmosphere is mostly made up of the “noble” gases argon, helium, and neon.

The vacuum of interplanetary space contains about 11 particles per cm3.

The vacuum of interstellar space contains about 1 particle per cm3.

The vacuum of intergalactic space contains about 10-6 particles per cm3.  That’s just 10 particles per cubic meter of space.

But what if we could remove all of the particles in a parcel of space?  And somehow shield that empty parcel of space from any external electromagnetic fields?  What would we have then?

It appears that even completely empty space has some inherent energy associated with it.  The vacuum is constantly “seething” with electromagnetic waves of all possible wavelengths, popping into and out of existence on unimaginably short time scales—allowed by Heisenberg’s energy-time uncertainly principle.  These “quantum flourishes” may be a intrinsic property of space—as is dark energy.  Dark matter, on the other hand, is some weird form of matter that exists within space, exerting gravitational influence but not interacting with normal matter or electromagnetic waves in any other way.

Is there any evidence of this vacuum energy, or is it all theoretical?  There are at least three phenomena that point to the intrinsic energy of empty space.  (1) The Casimir effect; (2) Spontaneous emission; and (3) The Lamb shift.

The Casimir effect
Take two uncharged conductive plates and put them very close to each other, just a few nanometers apart.  Only the shortest wavelengths will be able to exist between the plates, but all wavelengths will exist on the other side of the two plates.  Under normal circumstances, this will cause a net force or pressure that pushes the two plates towards one another.

Spontaneous emission
An example of spontaneous emission is an electron transitioning from an excited state to the ground state, emitting a photon.  What causes this transition to occur when it does?

The Lamb shift
The Lamb shift is a tiny shift in the energy levels of electrons in hydrogen and other atoms that can’t be explained without considering the interaction of the atom with “empty” space.

Reucroft, S. and Swain, J., “What is the Casimir effect?”, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-casimir-effec/.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

Koks,D. and Gibbs, P., “What is the Casimir effect?”, http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Quantum/casimir.html.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.


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