What is the Casimir effect?

To understand the Casimir Effect, one first has to understand something about a vacuum in space as it is viewed in quantum field theory. Far from being empty, modern physics assumes that a vacuum is full of fluctuating electromagnetic waves that can never be completely eliminated, like an ocean with waves that are always present and can never be stopped. These waves come in all possible wavelengths, and their presence implies that empty space contains a certain amount of energy—an energy that we can’t tap, but that is always there.

Now, if mirrors are placed facing each other in a vacuum, some of the waves will fit between them, bouncing back and forth, while others will not. As the two mirrors move closer to each other, the longer waves will no longer fit—the result being that the total amount of energy in the vacuum between the plates will be a bit less than the amount elsewhere in the vacuum. Thus, the mirrors will attract each other, just as two objects held together by a stretched spring will move together as the energy stored in the spring decreases.

One of the most interesting aspects of vacuum energy (with or without mirrors) is that, calculated in quantum field theory, it is infinite! To some, this finding implies that the vacuum of space could be an enormous source of energy—called “zero point energy.”

from: Scientific American

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