Ask Ethan: Can A Laser Really Rip Apart Empty Space?
“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?"”
As we strive for the greatest frontiers in physics, that always means pushing the limits. To that extra digit closer to absolute zero, the extra factor in high energy particles, the extra depth into the distant Universe. Or, in the case of laser physics, to that extra intensity: power focused into an extremely narrow space. There are three things you need to up that to the maximum amount possible:
-the most extreme amount of energy,
-in the shortest-span of a pulse,
-focused on the narrowest area possible.
If you can make it all the way up to a high enough energy, you should be able to rip electron/positron pairs out of the quantum vacuum (empty space) itself. Colloquially, people have started calling this “breaking the quantum vacuum,” but in reality, nothing gets broken.