Astronomers may have observed vacuum birefringence, a quantum effect predicted by the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) in the 1930s, by studying light behavior in the highly magnetized empty space around neutron star RX J1856.5-3754.
Ordinary space is generally thought to be empty with no effect on the path travelled by light, but in the presence of strong magnetic fields, a quantum effect can emerge and modify the space, as in the case of this neutron star's strong magnetic fields that permeate its surroundings.
The researchers analyzed data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and found the boosting effect of vacuum birefringence realized in the affected propagation of light in the space around the neutron star.
This is the first direct observational evidence supporting vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED. The next generation of telescopes, including the European Extremely Large Telescope, will likely participate in future observational tests.
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