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Ask Ethan: Can A Laser Really Rip Apart Empty Space?

10 Feb 2018, 15:01 UTC
Ask Ethan: Can A Laser Really Rip Apart Empty Space?
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Tabletop laser experiments might not have the highest energy output for lasers, but they can out-compete even the lasers used to ignite nuclear fusion in terms of power. Could the quantum vacuum finally yield? Image credit: US Air Force.Did you hear the story about how a 100 petawatt laser will finally ‘break the quantum vacuum’? Get the facts.Empty space, as it turns out, isn’t so empty. The fluctuations in the vacuum of space itself mean that even if you take all the matter and radiation out of a region of space, there’s still a finite amount of energy there, inherent to space itself. If you fire a powerful enough laser at it, can you, as a Science magazine story called it, break the vacuum and rip apart empty space? That’s what our Patreon supporter Malcolm Schongalla wants to know, as he asks:Science Magazine recently reported that Chinese physicists will start building a 100-petawatt(!!!) laser this year. Can you please explain how they plan to achieve this, and what unique phenomenon this will help physicists explore? Such as, what exactly is “breaking the vacuum?”The story is real, verified, and a little bit exaggerated in terms of claims that it can break ...

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