A team of scientists from INAF Milan and the University of Zielona Gora have observed a remarkable first ever vacuum birefringence. The Vacuum birefringence is a strange quantum phenomenon that had never been observed through a Very Large Telescope (VLT), only observed on an atomic scale.

It’s a phenomenon described when a neutron star is surrounded by an intense magnetic field that rises to a region in an empty space where matter randomly appears and vanishes.

A research team lead by Roberto Mignani were able to observe neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT). Neutron stars are not strongly visible but are 10 times bigger than our sun and have significantly strong magnetic fields percolating their surface and surroundings. The neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 is about 400 light years from Earth.

According to Einstein and Newton, vacuums are empty spaces where light can pass through unchanged. However, research shows that space is full of virtual particles popping in and out of existence and strong magnetic fields such as the surrounding neutron stars, are capable of changing such vacuums.

Using the VLT, researchers were able to push the known limits of a telescope and explore deeper on neutron stars. Using the FOR2 instrument on the VLT, neutron stars were able to be seen with just visible light. Analyzing this data, researchers found the linear polarization occurring at a significant degree of approximately 16%, which is most likely due to the strange vacuum birefringence in the area around RX J1856.5 – 375.

Robert Mignani describes “The high linear polarization that we measured with the VLT can’t be easily explained by our models unless the vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED are included”. Mignani is confident that future telescopes will provide detailed answers about similar strange quantum effects surrounding neutron stars.

Originally published on The Power of Ideas.