The Weirdness of Empty Space – Casimir Force

(This is an excerpt from The Book of Forces – enjoy!)

The forces we have discussed so far are well-understood by the scientific community and are commonly featured in introductory as well as advanced physics books. In this section we will turn to a more exotic and mysterious interaction: the Casimir force. After a series of complex quantum mechanical calculations, the Dutch physicist Hendrick Casimir predicted its existence in 1948. However, detecting the interaction proved to be an enormous challenge as this required sensors capable picking up forces in the order of 10^(-15) N and smaller. It wasn’t until 1996 that this technology became available and the existence of the Casimir force was experimentally confirmed.

So what does the Casimir force do? When you place an uncharged, conducting plate at a small distance to an identical plate, the Casimir force will pull them towards each other. The term “conductive” refers to the ability of a material to conduct electricity. For the force it plays no role though whether the plates are actually transporting electricity in a given moment or not, what counts is their ability to do so.

The existence of the force can only be explained via quantum theory. Classical physics considers the vacuum to be empty – no particles, no waves, no forces, just absolute nothingness. However, with the rise of quantum mechanics, scientists realized that this is just a crude approximation of reality. The vacuum is actually filled with an ocean of so-called virtual particles (don’t let the name fool you, they are real). These particles are constantly produced in pairs and annihilate after a very short period of time. Each particle carries a certain amount of energy that depends on its wavelength: the lower the wavelength, the higher the energy of the particle. In theory, there’s no upper limit for the energy such a particle can have when spontaneously coming into existence.

So how does this relate to the Casimir force? The two conducting plates define a boundary in space. They separate the space of finite extension between the plates from the (for all practical purposes) infinite space outside them. Only particles with wavelengths that are a multiple of the distance between the plates fit in the finite space, meaning that the particle density (and thus energy density) in the space between the plates is smaller than the energy density in the pure vacuum surrounding them. This imbalance in energy density gives rise to the Casimir force. In informal terms, the Casimir force is the push of the energy-rich vacuum on the energy-deficient space between the plates.


(Illustration of Casimir force)

It gets even more puzzling though. The nature of the Casimir force depends on the geometry of the plates. If you replace the flat plates by hemispherical shells, the Casimir force suddenly becomes repulsive, meaning that this specific geometry somehow manages to increase the energy density of the enclosed vacuum. Now the even more energy-rich finite space pushes on the surrounding infinite vacuum. Trippy, huh? So which shapes lead to attraction and which lead to repulsion? Unfortunately, there is no intuitive way to decide. Only abstract mathematical calculations and sophisticated experiments can provide an answer.

We can use the following formula to calculate the magnitude of the attractive Casimir force FCS between two flat plates. Its value depends solely on the distance d (in m) between the plates and the area A (in m²) of one plate. The letters h = 6.63·10^(-34) m² kg/s and c = 3.00·10^8 m/s represent Plank’s constant and the speed of light.

FCS = π·h·c·A / (480·d^4) ≈ 1.3·10^(-27)·A / d^4

(The sign ^ stands for “to the power”) Note that because of the exponent, the strength of the force goes down very rapidly with increasing distance. If you double the size of the gap between the plates, the magnitude of the force reduces to 1/2^4 = 1/16 of its original value. And if you triple the distance, it goes down to 1/3^4 = 1/81 of its original value. This strong dependence on distance and the presence of Plank’s constant as a factor cause the Casimir force to be extremely weak in most real-world situations.


Example 24:

a) Calculate the magnitude of the Casimir force experienced by two conducting plates having an area A = 1 m² each and distance d = 0.001 m (one millimeter). Compare this to their mutual gravitational attraction given the mass m = 5 kg of one plate.

b) How close do the plates need to be for the Casimir force to be in the order of unity? Set FCS = 1 N.



Inserting the given values into the formula for the Casimir force leads to (units not included):

FCS = 1.3·10^(-27)·A/d^4
FCS = 1.3·10^(-27) · 1 / 0.0014
FCS ≈ 1.3·10^(-15) N

Their gravitational attraction is:

FG = G·m·M / r²
FG = 6.67·10^(-11)·5·5 / 0.001²
FG ≈ 0.0017 N

This is more than a trillion times the magnitude of the Casimir force – no wonder this exotic force went undetected for so long.  I should mention though that the gravitational force calculated above should only be regarded as a rough approximation as Newton’s law of gravitation is tailored to two attracting spheres, not two attracting plates.


Setting up an equation we get:

FCS = 1.3·10^(-27)·A/d^4
1 = 1.3·10^(-27) · 1 / d^4

Multiply by d4:

d4 = 1.3·10^(-27)

And apply the fourth root:

d ≈ 2·10^(-7) m = 200 nanometers

This is roughly the size of a common virus and just a bit longer than the wavelength of violet light.


The existence of the Casimir force provides an impressive proof that the abstract mathematics of quantum mechanics is able to accurately describe the workings of the small-scale universe. However, many open questions remain. Quantum theory predicts the energy density of the vacuum to be infinitely large. According to Einstein’s theory of gravitation, such a concentration of energy would produce an infinite space-time curvature and if this were the case, we wouldn’t exist. So either we don’t exist (which I’m pretty sure is not the case) or the most powerful theories in physics are at odds when it comes to the vacuum.


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