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Vacuum’s quantum effect on light detected

Neutron star observations support 80-year-old prediction

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8:00am, December 9, 2016
Corona Australis

QUANTUM QUIRK  Scientists observed a bizarre effect of quantum physics in light from a nearby neutron star, located in the constellation of Corona Australis (above). Light from the star, too faint to be seen in the image above, is polarized due to interactions with the vacuum of space in a strong magnetic field.

Observations of the dense remnant of an exploded star have provided the first sign of a quantum effect on light passing through empty space.

Light from the stellar remnant, a neutron star located about 400 light-years away, is polarized, meaning that its electromagnetic waves are oriented preferentially in a particular direction like light that reflects off the surface of water (SN: 7/8/06, p. 24). That polarization is evidence of “vacuum birefringence,” a quantum effect first predicted 80 years ago caused by light interacting with the vacuum of space in a strong magnetic field. Scientists report the result in a paper to be published in the Feb. 11, 2017 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“It’s the most natural explanation,” says astrophysicist Jeremy Heyl of

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