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Stephen Hawking's Most Famous Prediction Tested: scientists use a warp drive to make atoms disappear

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

By: April Carson

A new warp speed experiment may provide the scientific community with a long-sought means of testing one of Stephen Hawking's most famous predictions.

In his 1994 book "A Brief History of Time," the famed theoretical physicist suggested that if one could find a way to travel faster than light, then it might be possible to create a "wormhole" that could connect two points in space-time. This would effectively allow travelers to take a shortcut through the universe.

The new plan suggests that scientists may be able to view the ethereal quantum glow that enshrouds objects moving at close to the speed of light by nudging an atom into becoming undetectable.

While the theory is still in its early stages, and has yet to be proven, it provides a tantalizing possibility for testing one of Hawking's most famous predictions. If successful, it could also pave the way for new technologies that exploit the strange properties of quantum mechanics to create "invisibility cloaks" and other devices that bend the laws of physics.

"It's a beautiful experiment that brings together two of the most important ideas in modern physics – Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics," said David Hestenes, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the research.

The Unruh (or Fulling-Davies-Unruh) effect, often known as the glow effect, causes space around rapidly moving objects to seem filled with a swarm of virtual particles that give those things a warm glow. Scientists have long been looking for one as a possible sign of the other's existence, because the phenomenon is closely related to the Hawking effect — in which virtual particles known as Hawking radiation spontaneously appear at the rims of black holes.

The difficulty of detecting either effect is immense. Only around the fearsome brink of a black hole does Hawking radiation occur, and achieving the Unruh acceleration would almost certainly require a warpdrive. Now, according to an April 26 research in Physical Review Letters, scientists have discovered a method for increasing the strength of the Unruh effect by using sophisticated physics.

"We just don't know, and I think we've been waiting for this for a long time," said co-author Vivishek Sudhir, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and the experiment's designer. "Maybe there will be some kind of surprise at the end that we'll be able to document it with proof," he added.

The Unruh effect is one of several quantum field-theory predictions that was first suggested in the 1970s. According to this idea, there isn't a void in space. In reality, any pocket of empty space is packed with limitless quantum-scale vibrations that, if given enough energy, can erupt into particle-antiparticle pairs that nearly immediately decay back into nothingness. And any particle — whether it be matter or light — is just a localized fluctuation of the quantum field.

Stephen Hawking predicted in 1974 that the tremendous gravitational force at the rims of black holes — their event horizons — should be strong enough to create a sort of particle pair-creation effect. Under the right circumstances, he said, particles could be "pulled apart" and disappear into the black hole.

According to Einstein's general relativity theory, gravity twists space-time, so that quantum fields are deformed closer to the enormous gravitational draw of a black hole's singularity. Because of the weirdness and uncertainty of quantum mechanics, this distorts the quantum field, generating uneven pockets of time that move at different rates and subsequent energy spikes across the field. It is these energy mismatches that create virtual particles out of what appears to be nothing near black holes' rims.

Black holes are thought to be completely dark, according to lead author Barbara Šoda of the University of Waterloo in Canada. "Black holes are supposed to emit radiation, as Stephen Hawking figured out," she added. "But this radiation is only detectable if the black hole is really tiny."

The new study, however, found that even a supermassive black hole like the one at the center of our galaxy would be constantly making and destroying atoms near its event horizon.

The Unruh effect, like the Hawking effect, creates virtual particles via the odd mixing of quantum mechanics and relativistic effects predicted by Einstein. Rather than black holes or general relativity causing distortions, they are caused by near light speeds and special relativity, which states that time passes more slowly as an object approaches light speed.

A stationary atom can only increase its energy by waiting for a real photon to excite one of its electrons, according to quantum theory. Fluctuations in the quantum field, on the other hand, may add up to seem like genuine photons to an accelerating atom. An accelerating atom would perceive itself moving through a crowd of warm light particles, all of which heat it up from its perspective. This heat would be a clear indication of the Unruh effect.

However, the accelerations needed to generate the effect are far beyond the capability of any current particle accelerator. To produce a glow hot enough for present detectors to detect, an atom would need to accelerate to the speed of light in less than a millionth of a second — receiving a g force of 1 quadrillion meters per second squared — which is well beyond the capacity of any existing particle accelerator.

Sudhir added, "To see this impact in a short period of time, you'd need some tremendous acceleration. If you had modest acceleration, you'd have to wait a ginormous length of time — longer than the universe's age — before seeing any impact."

To bring the effect to life, the researchers came up with an innovative solution. Photons cause quantum fluctuations to be denser, which means that an atom generated to move through a vacuum while being struck by high-intensity laser light might theoretically produce the Unruh effect, even at very modest accelerations. The issue is that the atom may also react with the laser light absorbing it, raising its energy level and producing heat that would drown out any Unruh radiation.

The researchers, however, discovered yet another strategy: acceleration-induced transparency. If an atom is compelled to travel a pre-defined route through a field of photons, it will be unable to "see" the photons at a certain frequency, making them effectively invisible to the atom. As a result, by connecting all of these workarounds together, the group would be able to look for the Unruh effect at this specific wavelength of light.

There will be difficulties in putting the plan into action. The scientists want to construct a lab-scale particle accelerator that will accelerate an electron to lightning speeds while delivering it with a microwave beam. If they can detect the impact, they'll do research on it, especially attempting to find any connections between Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

"The theory of general relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics are presently still somewhat incompatible, but there must be a unifying theory that explains how things function in the universe," co-author Achim Kempf, a professor of applied mathematics at Waterloo University, said. "We've been searching for a way to connect these two massive theories; this research is moving us closer by bringing new ideas into play."

If the scientists do detect an impact, it would be one of the most famous predictions in all of physics put to the test.

"This could be huge," said co-author Igor Klebanov, a professor of theoretical physics at Princeton University. "We're testing a very bold idea about the nature of space and time."

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

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