Vacuum state

Vacuum state

In quantum field theory, the vacuum state (also called the vacuum) is the quantum state with the lowest possible energy. Generally, it contains no physical particles. The term "zero-point field" is sometimes used as a synonym for the vacuum state of an individual quantized field.

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"cite book
author=Astrid Lambrecht (Hartmut Figger, Dieter Meschede, Claus Zimmermann Eds.)
title=Observing mechanical dissipation in the quantum vacuum: an experimental challenge; in Laser physics at the limits
page=p. 197
publisher= Springer
location=Berlin/New York
] , and again: "it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void."cite book
author=Christopher Ray
title=Time, space and philosophy
page=Chapter 10, p. 205
publisher= Routledge
location=London/New York
] 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 existence. [ [ AIP Physics News Update,1996] ] [ [ Physical Review Focus Dec. 1998] ] cite book
author=Walter Dittrich & Gies H
title=Probing the quantum vacuum: perturbative effective action approach
publisher= Springer

The QCD vacuum of quantum chromodynamics is the object of study in the relativistic heavy ion collider and the large hadron collider, and is related to the so-called "vacuum structure of strong interactions".cite book |title=Hadrons and Quark-Gluon Plasma |author=Jean Letessier, Johann Rafelski |page=pp. 37 "ff" |url=,M1 |isbn=0521385369 |year=2002 |publisher=Cambridge University Press]

Non-vanishing vacuum state

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 QM 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.

The energy of the vacuum state

In many situations, the vacuum state can be defined to have zero energy, although the actual situation is considerably more subtle. The vacuum state is associated with a zero-point energy, and this zero-point energy has measurable effects. In the laboratory, it may be detected as the Casimir effect. In physical cosmology, the energy of the vacuum state appears as the cosmological constant. An outstanding requirement imposed on a potential Theory of Everything is that the energy of the vacuum state must explain the physically observed cosmological constant.

The symmetry of the vacuum state

For a relativistic field theory, the vacuum is Poincaré invariant. Poincaré invariance implies that only scalar combinations of field operators have non-vanishing VEV's. The VEV may break some of the internal symmetries of the Lagrangian of the field theory. In this case the vacuum has less symmetry than the theory allows, and one says that "spontaneous symmetry breaking" has occurred. See Higgs mechanism, standard model and Woit.cite book
author=Peter Woit
title=Not even wrong: the failure of string theory and the search for unity in physical law
publisher= Basic Books
location=New York

Electrical permittivity of vacuum state

In principle, it is possible for the experimental electrical permittivity ε of the vacuum state to deviate from the defined scalar value ε0 of the electric constant due to quantum corrections to Maxwell's equations. These theoretical developments are described, for example, in Dittrich and Gies.cite book
author=Walter Dittrich & Gies H
title=Probing the quantum vacuum: perturbative effective action approach
publisher= Springer
page=p. 13, for example
] In particular, the theory of quantum electrodynamics predicts that vacuum should exhibit nonlinear effects that will make it behave like a birefringent material with ε slightly greater than ε0 for extremely strong electric fields. [Klein, James J. and B. P. Nigam, [ "Birefringence of the vacuum"] , "Physical Review" vol. 135, p. B1279-B1280 (1964).] Mourou, G. A., T. Tajima, and S. V. Bulanov, [ "Optics in the relativistic regime"; § XI "Nonlinear QED"] , "Reviews of Modern Physics" vol. 78 (no. 2), 309-371 (2006).] Explanations for dichroism from particle physics, outside quantum electrodynamics, also have been proposed. [ [ Gies, H "et al.": "Polarized light propagating in a magnetic field as a probe for millicharged fermions"] Phys. Rev. Letts. 97 (2006) 140402] Active attempts to measure such effects have been unsuccessful so far. [ [ CC Davis "et al. " "Experimental challenges involved in searches for ... nonlinear QED effects by sensitive optical techniques"] ]


The vacuum state is written as |0 angle or | angle. The VEV of a field φ, which should be written as langle0|phi|0 angle, is usually condensed to langlephi angle.

Virtual particles

The uncertainty principle in the form Delta EDelta tgehbar implies that in the vacuum one or more particles with energy ΔE above the vacuum may be created for a short time Δt. These "virtual particles" are included in the definition of the vacuum.

ee also

*Vacuum energy
*Virtual particle
*Pair production
*Vacuum polarization
*The quantum-mechanical vacuum
*QCD vacuum
*Squeezed coherent state
*Casimir effect
*Van der Waals force
*Free space

References and notes

Further reading

* M.E. Peskin and D.V. Schroeder, "An introduction to Quantum Field Theory".
* H. Genz, " Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space"

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