Quantum 'Nothingness' Measured at Room Temperature

Can there be such a thing as pure nothingness?. Mike Cohen/CreditScoreGeek.com/Flickr

Need some extreme quiet time? We've got just the piece of high-tech quantum equipment for you.

Thomas Corbitt of Louisiana State University and his team of researchers have managed to measure quantum "nothingness" for the first time, allowing them to eliminate noise all the way down to the quantum level. And they can now produce this ultimate sense of silence at room temperature, meaning we don't have to make conditions ice cold to achieve it, according to an LSU press release.

The purpose of the experiment wasn't to give single mothers everywhere some desperately needed reprieve. Rather, it's to make listening for gravitational waves a little bit easier.

Gravitational waves are the tiny perturbations in the fabric of spacetime that echo across the universe when massive objects, like supermassive black holes, collide. They sound like they'd be exceptionally loud events, but the fabric of spacetime is a tough beast to perturb, so detecting gravitational waves actually requires a highly sensitive detector. For instance, the first gravitational wave ever detected, by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) back in 2015, rocked spacetime at only about 1/1,000th the diameter of a proton.

Like with any sensitive detector, to pick up the minutest of sounds you need to eliminate as much of the other surrounding noise as possible. That's why achieving a measurement of quantum nothingness is so important. To do it at room temperature is a big-time advancement.

That's because one of the biggest sources of noise at the smallest levels is called quantum radiation pressure, which arises when tiny fluctuations that constantly bounce out of the quantum void interact with our measurement tools. Previously we could only measure the impact that this radiation pressure had by studying it at ultra-cold temperatures, to slow the whole process down to an observable degree.

That changes with this new breakthrough.

“Given the imperative for more sensitive gravitational wave detectors, it is important to study the effects of quantum radiation pressure noise in a system similar to Advanced LIGO," said Corbitt.

Although technically speaking there is no such thing as nothingness, as quantum fluctuations are always popping up in any vacuum, by measuring this noise and then factoring it out of our measurements, we can effectively create pure nothingness in the abstract. That's what this experiment is really all about.

And it promises to allow future LIGO experiments to listen in on that sweet, meditative trickle of gravitational waves that washes over us from across the cosmos.

Though of course, just the silence is nice enough on occasion as well.