Quantum foam (also referred to as space-time foam) is a concept in quantum mechanics devised by John Wheeler in 1955. The foam is supposed to be conceptualized as the foundation of the fabric of the universe.
Additionally, quantum foam can be used as a qualitative description of subatomic space-time turbulence at extremely small distances (on the order of the Planck length). At such small scales of time and space, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows energy to briefly decay into particles and antiparticles and then annihilate without violating physicalconservation laws. As the scale of time and space being discussed shrinks, the energy of the virtual particles increases. According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, energy curves space-time. This suggests that—at sufficiently small scales—the energy of these fluctuations would be large enough to cause significant departures from the smooth space-time seen at larger scales, giving space-time a “foamy” character.
With an incomplete theory of quantum gravity, it is impossible to be certain what space-time would look like at these small scales, because existing theories of gravity do not give accurate predictions in that realm. Therefore, any of the developing theories of quantum gravity may improve our understanding of quantum foam as they are tested. However, observations of radiation from nearby quasars by Floyd Stecker of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have placed strong experimental limits on the possible violations of Einstein’s special theory of relativity implied by the existence of quantum foam. Thus experimental evidence so far has given a range of values in which scientists can test for quantum foam.
Experimental evidence (and counter-evidence)
The MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov) telescopes have detected that among gamma-ray photons arriving from the blazar Markarian 501, some photons at different energy levels arrived at different times, suggesting that some of the photons had moved more slowly and thus contradicting the theory of general relativity’s notion of the speed of light being constant, a discrepancy which could be explained by the irregularity of quantum foam. More recent experiments were however unable to confirm the supposed variation on the speed of light due to graininess of space. Other experiments involving the polarization of light from distant gamma ray bursts have also produced contradictory results. More Earth-based experiments are ongoing or proposed.
Relation to other theories
Quantum foam is theorized to be the ‘fabric’ of the Universe, but cannot be observed yet because it is too small. Also, quantum foam is theorized to be created by virtual particles of very high energy. Virtual particles appear in quantum field theory, arising briefly and then annihilating during particle interactions in such a way that they affect the measured outputs of the interaction, even though the virtual particles are themselves space. These “vacuum fluctuations” affect the properties of the vacuum, giving it a nonzero energy known as vacuum energy, itself a type of zero-point energy. However, physicists are uncertain about the magnitude of this form of energy.
The Casimir effect can also be understood in terms of the behavior of virtual particles in the empty space between two parallel plates. Ordinarily, quantum field theory does not deal with virtual particles of sufficient energy to curve spacetime significantly, so quantum foam is a speculative extension of these concepts which imagines the consequences of such high-energy virtual particles at very short distances and times. Spin foam theory is a modern attempt to make Wheeler’s idea quantitative.