Was something created from nothing?
Confirmation of the quantum-mechanical Schwinger effect
Some headlines claimed that something was created from nothing.1 As usual, the good science must be separated from the unwarranted interpretations.
The good science? Quantum mechanics—which really is good operational science, as we have explained.2 One feature of quantum mechanics is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, named after Nobel-Prize–winning quantum mechanics pioneer Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976). This principle states that we can’t know both energy and time to infinite precision, or position and momentum (see box). Since mass and energy are related by the famous Einstein formula E = mc2, this also applies to mass.
So, for the tiniest fraction of a second, new subatomic particles can appear, then disappear. These are called a virtual particle-antiparticle pair. However, the time the particles can last is inversely proportional to their mass. That is, larger masses last less time. The particle and antiparticle quickly annihilate each other. So existence is fleeting for anything smaller than subatomic particles. For something as large as the universe, forget it!
The virtual particle production is thus a temporary violation of the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy: i.e. total amount of mass/energy is constant. But this is not a problem, because of the uncertainty in the measurement of energy for a given infinitesimal time period. Past that time period, the particles disappear, restoring the original mass-energy, so the Law is safe.
Virtual particles have been demonstrated theoretically. This part is good science. What is not good science is claiming that it is something from nothing. Virtual pair production requires a quantum field—this is something not nothing. Many atheistic cosmogonists, including Lawrence Krauss and the late Stephen Hawking, make this philosophical blunder of calling something nothing.
Normally the existence of virtual particles is extremely fleeting. However, in 1951, Nobel-Prize–winning quantum physicist Julian Schwinger (1918–1994) explained theoretically how the virtual particle pair could persist. An extremely strong electric field would separate the oppositely charged particle and antiparticle, stopping their annihilation. Thus the particles would persist.
However, an electric field is not ‘nothing’! Also, the energy of the particles is sucked from the electric field, thus preserving the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy.
Scientists thought it was too hard to prove Schwinger’s prediction, because it requires electric fields way beyond what scientists can produce. Rather, it would take an electric field like that produced by a magnetar (‘magnetic star’), a neutron star with a magnetic field of billions of teslas (Earth’s decaying magnetic field is 50 millionths of a tesla). Alternatively, they hoped to achieve the needed electric fields temporarily with higher-energy particle collisions.
However, researchers at the University of Manchester overcame that problem and confirmed the Schwinger effect.3 But it wasn’t a particle-antiparticle pair in space, but the solid-state analogue: an electron-hole pair.4 A ‘hole’ in a solid is a lack of electron in the solid lattice where one would normally exist.5 In a normal solid, the negative charge of the electrons is balanced by the positive charge of the atomic nuclei. So the hole’s location has net positive charge. The solid-state analogue requires a much lower electric field than empty space (and some different theoretical treatment).
‘Hole conduction’ is where the holes move through the lattice as if they were positively charged particles. This is important for p-type semiconductors—the ‘p’ refers to the positive charge of the holes.
The experiment used graphene, which consists of layers of carbon a single atom in thickness. This is essentially a two-dimensional substance, with unusual electrical properties and the ability to sustain very high currents. The graphene was arranged in a superlattice: alternating very thin layers of graphene and boron nitride.
When a very strong electric field was applied, it produced an electric current higher than that allowed by normal quantum mechanics of electron conduction. It could be explained only by the generation of extra charged particles: electron-hole production. These particles persisted long enough to contribute to the measured electric current.
Finally, the universe is mostly matter. Such processes produce an equal number of particles and antiparticles, so could not explain our universe. This long-standing problem for big bang theory6 is not solved by the Schwinger effect.
The sensationalist article concluded:
With electrons and positrons (or “holes”) being created out of literally nothing, just ripped out of the quantum vacuum by electric fields themselves, it’s yet another way that the Universe demonstrates the seemingly impossible: we really can make something from absolutely nothing!1
As explained, it does nothing of the sort. But the actual research is important science, and probably has useful practical applications:
The research is also important for the development of future electronic devices based on two-dimensional quantum materials and establishes limits on wiring made from graphene that was already known for its remarkable ability to sustain ultra-high electric currents.3
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states: ΔE Δt ≥ h/4π and Δx Δp ≥ h/4π, where Δ = uncertainty, E= energy, t = time, x= position, p = momentum, and h = Planck’s Constant = 6.62607015×10⁻34 J.s.
The tininess of Planck’s constant is why the uncertainty is relevant only to subatomic particles. For most larger systems, quantum mechanics reduces to classical mechanics. E.g. quantum mechanics can’t be used as a dodge to overcome the improbability of amino acids or nucleotides combining in the precise sequences needed for life. Quantum mechanics certainly can’t explain the appearance of the universe from ‘nothing’.
References and notes
- Siegel, E., 70-year-old quantum prediction comes true, as something is created from nothing, bigthink.com, 13 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Should creationists accept quantum mechanics? J. Creation 26(1):116–123, 2012. Return to text.
- Cosmic physics mimicked on table-top as graphene enables Schwinger effect, manchester.ac.uk, 28 Jan 2022. Return to text.
- Berdyugin, A.I. and 20 others, Out-of-equilibrium criticalities in graphene superlattices, Science 375(6579):430–433, 27 Jan 2022 | doi:10.1126/science.abi8627. Return to text.
- Interestingly, Nobel laureate Paul Dirac (1902–1984) first proposed the existence of an anti-electron (positron) as a hole in an infinite ‘sea’ of negative-energy electrons. Dirac had combined special relativity with quantum mechanics to explain the behaviour of electrons. However, his equation had solutions of both positive-energy and negative-energy states.
Why don’t we see the latter? Dirac proposed that all negative energy states were filled, so it was impossible for a positive-energy electron to drop to that state. But a photon with strong enough energy could knock one of these negative energy electrons into positive energy. That electron would behave like an ordinary electron, and the hole left behind would behave like a positively charged electron. If the hole and electron met, the electron would fill the hole (annihilation), releasing energy.
However, solid-state holes usually act as if they are much more massive than electrons. Return to text.
- Smorra, C. and 16 others, A parts-per-billion measurement of the antiproton magnetic moment, Nature 550(7676):371–374, 19 Oct 2017 | doi:10.1038/nature24048. Return to text.
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