Every so often, a physics discovery comes along that makes us question everything we thought we knew about the nature of physical reality in our universe. If an announcement made by an international team of astronomers is confirmed, astrophysicists might have witnessed a strange quantum phenomenon causing matter to blink in and out of existence in a region of empty space.
The study behind this announcement was led by Roberto Mignani, an astronomer at the Institute for Spatial Astrophysics in Milan, Italy and published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. According to the researchers’ data, observations of neutron star RX J1856.5-3754 indicate the presence of a highly polarized radiation field surrounding the star.
According to current theories of quantum physics, the polarization of this radiation field can only be present under known conditions if quantum electrodynamics (QED) polarisation effects are occuring. These effects, known as vacuum vacuum birefringence, were previously only theoretical; if these data are confirmed, it would mean that this very fringe-science quantum effect is causing particles and antiparticles of matter surrounding the star’s magnetic field to spontaneously exist and not exist.
Further data is needed before this theory can be confirmed due to the faint, almost unobservable glow of the polarized radiation that seems to point to the QED effect. While some critics have pointed out that their measurements might simply be due to background radiation, lead author Roberto Mignani told Science he believes this to be the real thing: the first known physical manifestation of quantum effects in space:
We are confident that there is no effect of the interstellar medium. The physics we see is intrinsic to the neutron star.
If confirmed, this phenomenon would violate or otherwise turn on their heads many of the laws of physics theorized by Newton and Einstein. According to their theories, the vacuum of space should be entirely empty. The existence of this spontaneous matter/anti-matter cloud might prove that in the cosmic level, even our brightest thinkers are still children scrawling in the dirt, unable to image the true nature of the mysterious universe around us.