We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Emerging Technology from the arXiv

A View from Emerging Technology from the arXiv

How to Measure Quantum Foam With a Tabletop Experiment

Physicists thought they could never measure the foam-like structure of spacetime. Now one theoretical physicist says it can be done using a laser and a block of glass

  • November 20, 2012

One of the central puzzles of spacetime is its structure on the smallest scale.

The equations of general relativity are smooth, even at the tiniest scales. But in the early 1960s, the American physicist John Wheeler pointed out that in quantum mechanics, ordinary properties of spacetime, such as position, momentum and so on, have an uncertainty associated with them. That implies that spacetme must be uncertain as well. Wheeler famously described it as “quantum foam”.

Physicists would dearly love to study this foam but there’s a problem. Spacetime only becomes foam-like on the tiniest scale, at so-called Planck lengths of 10^-35 metres or so.

Probing that distance is obviously difficult. One way to do it is by accelerating particles to huge energies, which allows physicists to determine their position accurately, thereby probing very small volumes of space. 

But the energies required are around 10^19 GeV, many orders of magnitude higher than today’s particle accelerators. There’s no likelihood of reaching this energy on Earth in the foreseeable future so physicists are more or less resigned to the idea that they’ll never get their hands on quantum foam.   

They may change today thanks to a fascinating idea from Jacob Bekenstein, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Bekenstein says he has worked out a way to measure the structure of spacetime on the Planck scale using a simple experiment involving little more than a block of glass and a laser. 

In essence, the experiment is straightforward.  Bekenstein’s goal is to move the block by a distance that is about equal to the Planck length. His method is simple: zap the block with a single photon.

The photon carries a small amount of moment and consequently pushes the block as it enters the glass, giving it some momentum.  As the photon leaves the block, the block comes to rest.

So the result of the photon’s passage is that it moves the block a small distance. 

Bekenstein’s idea is that if this distance is smaller than the Planck length, then the block cannot move and the photon cannot pass through it.  

So the experiment involves measuring the number of photons that pass through the block. If the number is fewer than predicted by classical optics, then that proves the existence of quantum foam.

In fact, by changing the momentum imparted by the photons, physicists ought to be able to measure the scale at which quantum foam effects kick in and perhaps quantify it other ways too.

The beauty of this experiment is that it avoids all the usual problems of probing small length scales using quantum particles which themselves experience uncertainty in their position.

Instead, Bekenstein’s experiment relies on conservation of momentum and the change in position of the centre of mass of a macroscopic block of glass. He shows that this does not violate of the uncertainty principle. Indeed, the only measurement involved is a straightforward photon count. 

Best of all, this experiment requires no device more exotic than a laser and a fridge (the block has to be cooled to close to zero to minimise thermal perturbations). Nothing about it is beyond the state of the art. Indeed, the test could be performed today on a tabletop in a well-equipped lab.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Bekenstein is a big cheese in the world of theoretical physics but colleagues will want to be sure that his argument is water tight before embarking on such an experiment.

If it is, then Bekenstein’s table top experiment could be up and running in the very near future offering the first potential glimpse of quantum foam.

Of course, the failure to find quantum foam would also be interesting. The latest thinking is that gravity is an emergent phenomenon through a kind of thermodynamic process. This does not require quantum foam.

So the failure to detect quantum foam, although not a proof of the emergent gravity theories, would certainly be a hugely interesting discovery too.

Either way, physicists could have some fun with this.  

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1211.3816: Is A Tabletop Search For Planck Scale Signals Feasible?

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.