There’s a chance that our universe isn’t the stable, predictable place we’d all like it to be. It could be, in fact, based on change at levels that are so small they can’t be seen by the human eye. How could this be? It has to do with quantum foam.

What is quantum foam?

Quantum foam is one of the smallest components possible of spacetime. If someone was able to take an increasingly microscopic view of spacetime, it would appear to be full of tiny, wobbling bubbles similar to the foam of small bubbles in a sink or on the head of a glass of beer. The bubbles stack on each other, grow, and shrink. This foam can be seen as you look closer and closer into spacetime, similarly to the way passengers in a plane may be able to see more of the details of an ocean as it descends closer to the water.

How can humans detect quantum foam?

Quantum foam is small, so small that to see it you’d need to magnify it to something called the plank level, tiny enough that it equals 1.616229(38)×10−35 meters. That number may not mean much to non-scientists but there’s a way to visualize it. It is as small when it is compared to a human as a human would be when compared to the universe. It is also quadrillions of times smaller than atomic nuclei. That’s beyond microscopic–literally.

Theories and efforts to prove quantum foam

If the quantum foam is so small that it can’t be seen with the human eye, why do scientists believe its there? Extremely complex science holds the answer. To start, let’s look at Albert Einstein’s view of things. His belief that gravity is the result of the warping and curving of spacetime necessitates that gravity is fluctuating, dynamic and mobile and is subject to the laws of quantum mechanics. When the laws of quantum mechanics are applied to the physical construction of spacetime, it results in what can only be the fabric of bubbles that is quantum foam.

In addition to Einstein, other scientific work also supports Quantum foam. While it isn’t easily possible to physically see quantum foam, results from experiments prove that the foam exists. Scientists have measured that photons travel to earth from different stellar explosions arrive at different times depending on their energy levels. Given the fact that the speed of light is supposed to be constant and wouldn’t affect the change in their speed, quantum foam, and the fluctuations in their bubbles,  might be the varying factor that accounts for the changes in speeds that scientists saw.

Most prominently, in 1947, Dutch physicists Hendrik Casimir and Derik Polder developed the “Casimir Effect”. The extremely detailed principle was explained in the Journal LIve Science in this way, “If the quantum foam was real…then the particles should exist everywhere in space. Further, since particles also have a wave nature, there should be waves everywhere. So what they imagined was to have two parallel metal plates, placed near one another. The quantum foam would exist both between the plates and outside of them. But because the plates were placed near one another, only short waves could exist between the plates, while short and long wavelength waves could exist outside them. Because of this imbalance, the excess of waves outside the plates should overpower the smaller number of waves between them, pushing the two plates together.” The journal goes on to note that thirty years after it was first predicted, this effect was observed qualitatively. It was measured accurately fifty years later in 1997.

Is our universe based on instability and change?

While scientists continue to grapple with quantum foam and what it could mean to our universe, one thing is clear. There’s a possibility that everything humans know is based on constant changes and instability. Like the way the bubbles in a child’s bubble toy or a sink full of dishes are created and pop, quantum foam is ever changing and evolving. Maybe that’s the beauty of it.