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Nernst’s Cosmic Quantum-Ether

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Abstract

According to a theory proposed by Walther Nernst in 1916, empty space (or the ether) was a reservoir of zero-point electromagnetic radiation with an energy density of the order \(10^{23}\) erg cm\(^{-3}\). Nernst’s idea implied a new picture of empty space in which heavy atomic nuclei might emerge from vacuum fluctuations, and he would later develop it into a speculative cosmological theory. Although a few physicists found it interesting, the majority either ignored it or dismissed it as unfounded. Only much later has this early idea been reevaluated and seen as an anticipation of the vacuum of modern quantum physics.

Keywords

  • Ether
  • Zero-point energy
  • Radiation energy density
  • Walther Nernst

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Fig. 5.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The literature on Nernst is extensive. For full biographies, see in particular Barkan (1999) and Bartel and Huebener (2007). The scientific works of Nernst are well discussed in Partington (1953). A useful website, with a bibliography of the works of Nernst and his students, is http://www.nernst.de.

  2. 2.

    (Nernst (1916), p. 110). Nernst’s neutronic ether appeared as late as in the 15th edition of his widely used textbook in theoretical chemistry, where he stated that the electrons making up the neutrons would become ponderable by taking up zero-point energy (Nernst 1926, p. 464). He may have taken the idea, as well as the name “neutron,” from the Australian physicist William Sutherland (1899). Nernst’s neutron had only the name in common with the neutron that Ernest Rutherford introduced in 1920 as a material proton-electron composite particle.

  3. 3.

    The zero-point energy of stochastic electrodynamics is not based in quantum mechanics, but has its origin in fluctuations of classical electromagnetic fields. Indeed, some advocates of stochastic electrodynamics see the research programme as a partial alternative to quantum mechanics, in the sense that quantum effects are attributed to the classical zero-point field (Boyer 1980).

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Correspondence to Helge S. Kragh .

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Kragh, H.S., Overduin, J.M. (2014). Nernst’s Cosmic Quantum-Ether. In: The Weight of the Vacuum. SpringerBriefs in Physics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-55090-4_5

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