The quantum effect known as vacuum birefringence was predicted in the 1930s, but this is the first observational evidence of the phenomenon in action.
About 400 light-years from here, in the area surrounding a neutron star, the electromagnetic field of this unbelievably dense object appears to be creating an area where matter spontaneously appears and then vanishes.
Quantum electrodynamics (QED) describes the relationships between particles of light, or photons, and electrically charged particles such as electrons and protons. The theories of QED suggest that the universe is full of "virtual particles," which are not really particles at all. They are fluctuations in quantum fields that have most of the same properties as particles, except they appear and vanish all the time. Scientists predicted the existence of virtual particles some 80 years ago, but we have never had experimental evidence of this process until now.
Seeing the Invisible
How can we possibly see such a thing? One of the properties virtual particles have in common with actual particles is that they both affect light. In addition, intense magnetic fields are thought to excite the activity of virtual particles, affecting any light that passes through that space more dramatically.
So a team of astronomers pointed our most advanced ground-based telescope, the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), at one of the densest objects we know of: a neutron star.
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