Just Say What You Mean, OKAY ALREADY!

One would think that if they heard the words “empty space” that the space mentioned is actually empty. Well, it’s stuff like this that makes science so darn confusing sometimes. You see, empty space is not REALLY empty after all. The gringa really wishes that scientists would just name stuff better, to actually mean what they say. Why couldn’t they just call it “NOT so empty space”?

Research performed by Italian and Polish scientists at the European Southern Observatory has concluded that when light is emitted by a neutron star that is quite dense (kind of like the scientists who create terms like “empty space”) as well as strongly magnetized, strange quantum happenings occur. The light becomes polarized which means that the space around that star is not “empty”. Is it a vacuum? Well, the gringa supposes that’s a misleading term as well because if it really was a vacuum it would be empty, right? Also, if there was nothing there then nothing would be going on. However, there is most CERTAINLY something going on in the not so empty “empty space” surrounding highly magnetized neutron stars. That something is called “vacuum” birefringence.

The gringa’s next question, quite naturally, then, is, “What the heck is vacuum birefringence?” What comes to mind for the gringa’s limited capabilities is the fringe of my rug re-emerging after being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Is that what scientists are talking about? Does the neutron star suck up some energy to produce the light then spit it back out into what was once “empty space”? Is vacuum birefringence the “exhaust fumes” of light?

Nope. That’s not at all what happens. Empty space acts more like a prism than a vacuum. The gringa would like to know, then, why the scientists didn’t call this phenomena something like “prismatic filling of otherwise empty space”. Good grief. That would explain everything! Anyway, what actually happens is the not so empty “empty space” surrounding a highly magnetized neutron star actually has all kinds of particles that can appear or disappear as they please. If the neutron star is heavily magnetized, the magnetic effect enhances these particles as the light that passes through them becomes polarized. This means that the light we see coming out of empty space does not look exactly the same as when it was created and emitted by the star.

The gringa’s next question then, quite naturally of course, is, “Is this a big deal? What’s the point? Does this information have any practical purpose for mankind or is it just one of those curious and interesting facts?” Okay, actually the gringa asked 3 questions, but surely, by now, my dear readers will humor my insatiable curiosity and long-windedness.

What it means for the science world is being able to more accurately understand the observations of stars as well as build better long-range telescopes. By understanding neutron stars better, mankind can better understand all laws of nature.

The gringa must then ask another question, “How, specifically, does that help mankind?” Well, mankind’s ancient ancestors often created superstitious or religious explanations for natural laws that they didn’t understand. We can all read historical texts or even current news headlines to realize that superstition and religion can sometimes bring out the worst in mankind. However, as science has exposed certain beliefs to be in error, mankind has been able to advance civilization toward better living conditions and more humane treatment of one another. If studying the not-so-empty space of neutron stars contributes to creating world peace, then the gringas asks one more questions, “Where can I contribute and how much do you need?”





Image Credit: www.orionsarm.com



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A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

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