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Boffins flick Quantum vacuum switch from suck to blow

Goldenballs will power gecko hoverships, raygun gloves

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Cartoon-loving boffins from University of St Andrews believe they have found a way to reverse the "Casimir force" which causes really small things to stick to each other. This has been widely written up, usually with the word "levitation" in the headline.

The University press release notes that:

"Professor Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin of the University's School of Physics & Astronomy believe that they can engineer the Casimir force of quantum physics to cause an object to repel rather than attract another in a vacuum.

"Casimir force (discovered in 1948 and first measured in 1997) can be demonstrated in a gecko's ability to stick to a surface with just one toe ..."

This suggests some truly exciting possibilities. Firstly, that boffins used geckoes to demonstrate the Casimir force in '97, after taking 49 years to notice them; and secondly that the Scottish-based researchers have now found a way to make gecko feet frictionless rather than sticky - or even that geckoes, at any rate, could be made to levitate.

This raises visions of a beautiful but perhaps ethically troubling future with mighty hover vessels plying the skies, lifted on the backs of hundreds of genetically or surgically modified ground-repelling geckoes. No doubt in time some kind of squamatan-effects coating or generator would replace the early aerial gecko-galleons but in the meantime the potential for lizard abuse would be horrific.

Perhaps fortunately, hopes of hovering mid-air geckoes or even comically slippery skating ones are dashed as soon as one looks at the scientists' own webpage, rather than the university press office one.

The boffins do their best to jazz things up with a few gratuitous Incredibles stills, but the bad news is all too plain. Geckoes can stick to ceilings - even glass ones, apparently, of the type metaphorically encountered by upward-bound female biz execs - due to the Van der Waals force between temporary dipoles in molecules. The Casimir stickiness, seemingly, is caused "roughly speaking" by "difference in the pressure of the quantum vacuum."

Of course any fool knows about the quantum vacuum between all the atoms and molecules and stuff which make up the world around us. As the Scottish-based boffins say:

"Empty space is not empty, but is filled with the quantum vacuum ... The energy of the quantum vacuum, the 'zero-point energy,' is infinite according to our present theories. Clearly, this [is not true] - it would make the electromagnetic field infinitely massive, because [of] E=mc2. The empty electromagnetic field would collapse under the weight of its own gravity [and the entire universe would implode] ... Nevertheless, the zero-point energy results in perfectly finite and experimentally confirmed facts, for example the Casimir force."

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