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In quantum physics, the vast emptiness of space isn’t actually that empty. In fact, what we think of as a “vacuum” is actually teeming with virtual particles – particles that flit in and out of existence constantly, existing for only tiny periods of time before they go back to nothingness.

This constant cycle of creation and destruction is the consequence of the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and creates what is known as vacuum energy – a background energy that exists throughout space, even when there is no matter present. Its existence has been indirectly observed through experimentation, such as those which demonstrate the Lamb shift – a slight fluctuation of the energy of electrons in a hydrogen atom.

Over forty years ago, physicist Gerald Moore predicted that if you were able to spin a mirror at speeds close to the speed of light, then the mirror would convert virtual photons into actual photons (the particles that make up light and other electromagnetic radiation). Unfortunately, it’s close to physically impossible to spin a mirror at near-relativistic speeds, and so this effect had not been observed.

Until now, that is. In a paper published in Nature, a team of physicists has demonstrated the creation of photons from vacuum fluctuations. To do this, they constructed a superconducting circuit, which they’ve dubbed the superconducting quantum interference device, or SQUID for short. SQUID is a superconductor that’s capable of oscillating at extraordinarily high frequencies – over 11 GHz. The SQUID is designed to effectively act as a mirror in order to replicate the theorized experiment.

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