- An international trio of researchers is working on an experiment that could potentially simulate the elusive Unruh effect.
- Proposed in the 1970s, the Unruh effect is characterized by a warm, particle-filled glow observed by an object accelerating through the vacuum of space.
- So, what exactly would that look like? Maybe a little bit like this.
Have you ever thought about what it would look like to enter hyperspace? Scientists are inching closer and closer to observing this phenomenon from the world of science fiction.
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A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Waterloo in the United Kingdom are working on an experiment that could potentially test what the experience of traveling at extremely high speeds though the vacuum of space would actually be like.
In the 1970s, scientists Stephen Fulling, Paul Davies, and William Unruh proposed what has now come to be known as the Fulling-Davies-Unruh effect, or the Unruh effect for short. They theorized that an observer accelerating through a vacuum at high speeds would be bathed in a warm, particle-filled glow purely as a result of its acceleration. This glow, they proposed, forms due to the amplification of quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of space.
What exactly would a warm, particle-filled glow look like, you ask? Picture a jump to “hyperspace,” an alternate dimension in science fiction that you can only reach through interstellar travel faster than the speed of light. PBS Space Time has a great video about the phenomena. You can learn more below:
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MIT’s Vivishek Sudhir and his colleagues Barbara Šoda and Achim Kempf, both of the University of Waterloo, plan to test this theory—and hopefully find evidence of this quantum glow—by accelerating an atom to the speed of light in less than a millionth of a second. They detail their plans for the experiment, which includes building a laboratory-sized particle accelerator, in an article published April 21 in the journal Physical Review Letters.
To increase their chances of observing the Unruh effect, the team proposes introducing photons into the field through a process called stimulation. This, they suggest, could spur additional quantum fluctuations. “When you add photons into the field, you’re adding ‘n’ times more of those fluctuations than this half a photon that’s in the vacuum,” Sudhir says in a press statement. “So, if you accelerate through this new state of the field, you’d expect to see effects that also scale ‘n’ times what you would see from just the vacuum alone.”
This method, however, can set off a series of additional reactions, which is why it hasn’t been tried before in other experiments designed to confirm the Unruh effect. The work-around, the team says, will involve a concept called “acceleration-induced transparency.” Essentially, if the team can direct the accelerating atom along a specific trajectory, it will be shielded from some of the side-effects of the stimulation. That would allow them to focus on measuring the radiation generated during the experiment and, if all goes according to plan, capture evidence of the elusive Unruh effect.
“Now at least we know there is a chance in our lifetimes where we might actually see this effect,” Sudhir said. “It’s a hard experiment, and there’s no guarantee that we’d be able to do it, but this idea is our nearest hope.”
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