Some of the strangest truths are found in physics. One of the rarest events humans have detected is the spontaneous turning of a photon of light into a virtual pair, an electron and a positron. Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider beneath the French-Swiss border recently detected, after recording trillions upon trillions of events where photons did what was expected, that is, ignore each other, found 59 cases where photons did interact due to being very temporarily in this virtual pair state.
In case you didn’t realize it, photons are tiny little bits of light. In fact, they’re the smallest bit of light possible. When you turn on a lamp, gigantic numbers of photons spring from that bulb and slam into your eyes, where they are absorbed by your retina and turned into an electrical signal so that you can see what you are doing.
So, you can imagine just how many photons surround you at any one time. Not just from the lights in your room, but photons also stream in through the window from the sun. Even your own body generates photons, but all the way down in infrared energies, so you need night vision goggles to see them. But they’re still there.
And, of course, all the radio waves and ultraviolet rays and all the other rays constantly bombard you and everything else with an endless stream of photons.
… The laws of physics are such that one photon just passes by another with zero interaction. …
Usually, it’s a good thing that photons don’t interact with each other or bounce off each other, because that would be a total madhouse with photons never going anywhere in any sort of straight line. So, thankfully, two photons will simply slip by each other as if the other didn’t even exist.
That is, most of the time.
In high-energy experiments, we can (with a lot of elbow grease) get two photons to strike each other, though this happens very rarely. … Particles like electrons and photons and all the other -ons continually fli p back and forth, changing identities as they travel. …
In the case of photons, as they travel, every once in a while (and keep in mind that this is extremely, extremely rare), one can change its mind. And instead of being just a photon, it can become a pair of particles, a negatively charged electron and a positively charged positron (the antimatter partner of the electron), that travel together. … then, another photon would see one of those positrons or electrons and talk to it. An interaction would occur.
Now, in this interaction, the photon just sort of bumps into either the electron or the positron and goes off on its merry way without any harm.
Blink and you’ll miss it, because the positron and electron will find each other, and, as happens when matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate, poof. The odd pair will turn back into a photon. … after trillions upon trillions of collisions, the team detected a grand total of 59 potential intersections. Just 59.
But what do those 59 interactions tell us about the universe? For one, they validate this picture that a photon isn’t always a photon. …
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This means that built-in to light itself–actually all electromagnetic radiation, not just the portion we see as light–is a tiny element of apparent random chance that a photon will misbehave. Those with very sensitive instruments take heed. Even a perfect fiberoptic cable can not conduct light completely flawlessly forever due to the fact that light itself has tiny but measurable spontaneous random glitches.
Light has also been created out of “nothing” using very short lived virtual particles, further showing that this model, where “imaginary” particles create real ones, is the true strange nature of the current universe. It’s not that virtual or imaginary particles don’t exist while they are here in our universe, they do, but before and after they do, they don’t.
Makes you think…