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A new test of water ripples supports the idea of quantum heat in a vacuum

This in-the-lab analog of the Unruh effect matches expectations for accelerated motion in space

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7:00am, September 18, 2017
empty space

HEAT WAVE  Accelerating at a high rate could make empty space seem hot, according to an idea called the Unruh effect. Scientists may have spotted signs of an analogous phenomenon in ripples of water.

Empty space might feel hot to a traveler zipping through at a rapidly increasing clip — or so some physicists predict. And a new experiment provides a hint that they might be right.

That idea, known as the Unruh effect, seems to be supported by an analogous effect that appears in a tank of rippling water. Patterns in the waves, when analyzed as if seen by an accelerating observer, appear to re-create the expected signature of the effect, researchers report September 7 at arXiv.org. If it holds up to further scrutiny, the result would mark the first time a version of the Unruh effect has been spotted.

It’s a counterintuitive concept: To an observer moving at a constant velocity, a perfect vacuum would be frigidly cold. But someone accelerating through that empty space might work up quite a sweat. “The Unruh effect is basically saying that if you are accelerated enough in the vacuum, you can burn to death,

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