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Quantumaniac is where it’s at - and by ‘it’ I mean awesome.

Over here, I post a ton of astronomy / math / general science in an attempt to make your brain feel good. My aim is to be as informative as possible, while posting fascinating things that hopefully enlighten us both a little to the mysteries of our truly wondrous universe(s?). Plus, how would you know if the blog exists or not unless you observe it?

Boom, just pulled the Schrödinger’s cat card. Now you have to check it out - trust me, it said so in an equation somewhere.

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Are there physical limits in the universe other than the speed of light?

Hells yeah.

Fastest fast: This is worth commenting on since you often hear “nothing can travel faster then light”, but the justification is almost always missing. The universe seems to be pretty happy thinking of the speed of light as being the same to everybody first (Maxwell’s Laws give you the speed of light, but Maxwell’s laws are the same to everybody so the speed of light is the same to everybody), and as a speed limit second. Since you always see light moving at the same speed, then no matter how much you speed up, it will always pass you by. So catching up to it isn’t an option, and everyone will always see you traveling slower than the speed of light.

Densest dense: The harder you compress something, the denser it becomes. Normally this is reflected in the distance between atoms shrinking. However, if the pressure is great enough, the atoms will find that it’s easier to have their electrons merge with their protons which then turn into neutrons (and also spit out neutrinos, but whatever). Without battling electron shells, the once mostly-empty atoms can be packed nucleus-to-nucleus.  Pressures and densities this high only seem to show up in neutron stars (guess where the name comes from). You can also cheat a little.  If a neutron star has a mass of more than about 5 Suns it will collapse into a blackhole, which is technically more dense.

Coldest cold: You might have guessed: zero. Specifically 0K = -273°C = -460°F. However, this is more of an “asymptotic limit” and can never quite be reached. An object with a temperature of absolute zero will have no atomic movement (heat) whatsoever, but that’s not possible. One way of thinking about it is in terms of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which, in a paraphrased nutshell, states: “You can’t have both a perfectly certain position and a perfectly certain momentum,” and a temperature of 0 K would effectively have both. Most people who have heard of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are under the impression that it’s a limit on how well we can know about an object. In fact, it’s far better to think of it as a description of how well the universe can know about an object. Despite the difficulties imposed by the uncertainty principle, we can still get things crazy cold. The world record for lowest temperature now stands at 0.0000000001K = 0.1 nK.

Smallest small: Again, for “uncertainty principle type reasons” it doesn’t make sense to talk about objects or events smaller than the Planck scale, which is about 10-35m. So far, nobody can think of anything in the universe, at any scale, that would really care, or be able to tell the difference between two points separated by 10-35m.

Emptiest empty: One version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle can be written: 

\Delta E \Delta t \ge \frac{\hbar}{2}

which means that the time and energy of something can’t both be perfectly well known (not even by the universe, the quantities themselves are uncertain). If you apply this principle to empty space you’ll notice that over short enough time scales there will be measurable, non-zero energy, and over really short time scales you’ll find particles popping in and out of existence. These particles are called “virtual particles”, and this phenomena is sometimes described as a “particle foam”.

So even with a perfect vacuum, you’ll still have crap around.  This crap is often called the “vacuum energy” or “zero point energy”.

Sadly, harvesting the vacuum energy is physically impossible (it would violate the uncertainty principle).  The vacuum energy amounts to about 10-13J/m3, or about “the energy a baseball has falling off a table per volume of Lake Superior“.
Images: 1, 2

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