Crossover: Superfluid Space Theory with Uncle Buck’s House Podcast

This past week I was back on Uncle Buck’s House Podcast, this time to pretend I knew what the heck I was talking about when it comes to astrophysics. I tried to break down the Superfluid Space theory as much as possible, but getting into the physics and theories of anything related to space can get pretty deep! We also talked about the ongoing Wall Street Bets saga and a little bit of miscellaneous.

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One night in the midst of a YouTube rabbit hole of science related videos, I came across one demonstrating the properties of liquid helium, described as a “superfluid.” The properties of liquid helium were very strange and unlike anything I had seen before. I’ll describe them in greater detail later on. I wanted to learn more about superfluids, which led me to stumble across several articles regarding a theory that outer space itself is a superfluid rather than a vacuum.

What did you learn about space in school?

I was taught – as were most folks in the last century or so – that space is a void, a vacuum, that it is empty with “nothing” there whatsoever in between the suns, planets, and asteroids. This description has existed in some form for quite a long time, but Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity” really pushed it into the mainstream of science.

As far as current studies and information is concerned, it is almost totally accurate, and understandably the easiest way to describe “space.” The gaps between celestial bodies do contain dust and various gases; even the most “empty” parts of space have a few hundred atoms or particles per cubic meter. That amount is so negligible that it is within reason to describe it as “nothing” in basic science classes.

For the purposes of international treaties and agreements, as well as for aerospace record-keeping, “outer space” officially begins at 62 miles above the Earth’s sea level.

Before I dive deep into the fluid of space, I’ll try to establish some basic introductory information that will help with a greater understanding of the theory. Don’t worry, even though I call it “basic,” most of it is information that I had to research and learn along the way as well.

“In space, no one can hear you scream.”

This very recognizable pop-culture phrase originated in the first Alien movie in 1979. This phrase is accurate as far as our understanding of space, and as far as I know would remain true when inserted into the superfluid theory as well.

So how do sounds travel, and why why are sounds unable to travel through space, but radio waves apparently can do so?

Sound waves are compression waves. They travel through particles that have mass, bumping into themselves and the particles from the mass, and pushing forward against each other. Due to resistance from the mass through which they are traveling, the waves typically dissipate relatively quickly.

Imagine being in the pit at a concert (in the BC era – Before Covid, of course) and a group at one side makes a big push that causes a chain reaction of people bumping into each other. Eventually everyone will recover and regain balance, ending the human wave. This is more-or-less a very basic explanation of how sound waves travel.

The particles in space are social-distancing well enough that sound isn’t able to bounce off of them, making it unable to travel far (if at all) in space.

Radio waves, meanwhile, are actually electromagnetic radiation. The electric and magnetic fields continue oscillating and propagating themselves through space. The traditional belief is that a medium is not needed for these types of waves to travel because they do not do so via mass-containing particles.

More simply, radio waves are not actually “sound,” but rather a type of light. Radio antennas are programmed to detect and decode radio waves and make noises based on what type of signal they receive. Sending radio waves through space – or through the air on Earth – is more akin to sending Morse code with lasers than it is yelling into a megaphone.

Hurtling through space, faster and faster, for eternity?

More questions arose in my mind, such as: does an object in motion in space keep going forever? And could an object keep going faster and faster forever?

According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, “an object will not change its motion unless a force acts upon it.” Thus if space is an empty void, a vacuum, in theory an object could indeed keep traveling forever, as long as it doesn’t run into any suns, planets, asteroids, etc.

Whether an object could keep accelerating forever, though, is more complicated. The answer is “technically yes, but not at at all likely in reality.” To keep accelerating, an object would need an unlimited fuel source, and based on the Special Theory of Relativity, the velocity could never surpass the speed of light (nor can anything else). Objects with mass get “heavier” as they travel, and thus it takes more energy for them to accelerate. Doing so requires a displacement of energy – something propelling it – and that becomes more difficult the faster it travels and the “heavier” it gets.

So what is the speed of light, and why can’t anything surpass its speed?

Light is comprised of photos, which do not have mass and do not speed up. The moment they are created they are already traveling in waves at top speed, which is a constant speed. The speed of light has been calculated to be 299,792.5 kilometers per second (186,000 miles per second) in an unobstructed vacuum. This is fast enough to circle the earth 7.5 times in one second.

For comparison, the highest quality fiber optic cables for computer/digital data transfer have so far only reached about 40% of that speed. The New Horizons Space Probe, recently launched by NASA and the fastest one yet, reached a top speed of 16 kilometers per second, a little short of the nearly 300,000 kilometers per second of light.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been able to accelerate particles around its 17 mile track at a speed equal to 99.9999991% of the speed of light. The particles make 11,245 laps around the track every second. The collider sends beams of light with trillions of particles in opposite directions at that “almost” the speed of light speed and eventually some of them collide with one another. A logical, but incorrect, assumption would be that the collision speed would be almost twice the speed of light, but it is still recorded as slightly less than the speed of light.

Why can’t they go faster than that? According to Einstein, time slows down and space becomes warped as it approaches the speed of light. His theory suggests that the speed of light is constant to any observer regardless of that observer’s orientation or speed. In other words, light will always be going almost 300,000 km/s faster than you, no matter how fast you are traveling. This theory takes the three measurable dimensions of space and combines it with TIME as a fourth dimension.

If you and me were traveling through space at different speeds, the speed of light would thus be traveling at 300,000 km/s in front of each of us, despite us being at different speeds. The light itself would not have two speeds; time itself would advance at two different speeds for the two of us. If we synced up our watches at the start of our journey, they should start to show different times as we progressed through the universe.

That’s great and all, but are you ever going to tell me what a superfluid is?

A superfluid is a liquid with zero (or near zero) viscosity, which means it flows without any significant oloss of kinetic energy. The substance does not adhere to “normal” expectations of how any matter on Earth is known to behave. If you stir a superfluid, in theory the vortex formed would continue to spin forever. A superfluid can also flow “upwards” out of a glass beaker and seep in between the molecules of the glass to “leak” out of the bottom.

Here are a couple video examples of this phenomenon:

For a more “down to earth” comparison, consider the oil in your car. It has a viscosity rating, which refers to its resistance to flow, or how easily (or not easily) it pours and flows at certain temperatures. The lower the viscosity, the faster the flow; the higher the viscosity, the slower the flow. For an oil rated 5W-30, the 5 refers to the low-temperature viscosity rating and the 30 to the high-temperature viscosity rating. These numbers identify how the oil will flow through the engine at the lowest and highest operating temperatures of an engine. A fluid with too low of viscosity could ruin your engine because it wouldn’t be thick enough to fill the gaps between engine components without excess contact between them. Too high a viscosity would cause the parts to work extra hard and wear down faster. That’s why it is important to have the right oil for your engine.

However, a superfluid with zero or near-zero viscosity would be ideal for objects to travel through space without any loss of energy.

If space was a superfluid, it would mean that objects and particles – including photons, electromagnetic waves, etc. – would have a medium through which to travel rather than assuming they travel through a vacuum or empty void.

Into the Æther

The concept of a “luminiferous aether” (ether) as a “medium” through which electromagnetic waves and photons traveled through space was a commonly held belief throughout history up until the point of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The concept of the aether in space exists in many creation and/or world-beginning myths around the world.

The original thought process was that light waves (for example) should not be able to travel through empty space, and thus would need “something” to flow through, as would any other type of energy observed on Earth rather than in space. Einstein’s theory upended this idea, suggesting that light waves are “particles with a wave-like nature,” but do not need a medium through which to travel.

The theory of space being more than a vacuum is slowly making a comeback, however. In 1951, a scientist published multiple papers suggesting that the “uncertainty principle” should be applied to “the flow of aether,” and therefore the velocity of particles in space could not possibly be a constant quantity at any given point. The majority of the scientific community rejected this idea outright, as it contradicted Einstein’s theories.

In the 1970s, a group of scientists published a series of papers suggesting that the aether could exist and be a superfluid. Their theory (simplified as much as possible) said that tiny fluctuations of the superfluid could still allow the aether to fit into other theories of the time, including Einstein’s, because the movement would be so small. Despite their attempt to reconcile their theory with the untouchable Einstein theory, it too was rejected by the majority of the scientific community.

The superfluid theory lay dormant until 2014 when two researchers wrote a paper titled “Astrophysical Constraints on Planck Scale Dissipative Phenomena.” [PDF of paper]

Surfing Outer Space

The two researchers behind the paper, named Stefano Liberati and Luca Maccione, made a bold suggestion to the scientific community: stop looking at spacetime as “one singular classical object,” something that is whole when observed, and instead as the visible part of a fluid.

Water, for example, appears to be a flowing liquid but is in reality a moving mass of H2O molecules being pushed in a direction by a force of energy. When you see a wave in the ocean, the individual molecules aren’t creating the wave, but the force of energy over the combined group of molecules causes the water to move. This type of property of water is referred to as an “emergent” property, in that it isn’t a property of a singular molecule but rather a property that “emerges” when the molecules are moved in a large enough group to observe.

If space is a superfluid, it would mean that spacetime is comprised of its own tiny (as yet undiscovered) molecules. The possibility of dissipative effects (friction, loss of kinetic energy) would exist, and the emergent superfluid could interact differently with different types of energy transfer. The near-zero viscosity would still allow light waves (for example) to travel with essentially no resistance, but resistance could still exist.

This would allow for the possibility of extremely small variances in how light waves (and other energy waves) travel in space. In other words, it would mean that the speed of light is NOT constant, and would be dependent on the type of light being observed in addition to the position and speed of the observer. This would poke holes into Einstein’s theory, something that is still apparently a touchy subject in the scientific community.

No one actually knows what gravity is.

There is not yet a definitive explanation of how gravity “works” – or, technically, if it even exists.

Einstein’s theory describes gravity as something that “warps” spacetime. It creates curvatures throughout the universe, caused by massive celestial bodies, that determine the path that objects travel. The curve is dynamic; it moves as the objects move.

Imagine a placing a bowling ball in the center of a memory foam mattress. There is an indent caused that extends beyond the ball itself. Then imagine rolling a golf ball across the mattress towards the bowling ball. It will roll towards the indentation caused by the bowling ball and get caught in its circle of influence on the mattress. This is how Einstein described gravity as working with suns, planets, and moons getting caught in each other’s indentations.

However, gravity does not fit into any “quantum” model of physics (the very tiny). Quantum physics can explain the other three (of four) fundamental forces: electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force. Gravity is still a mystery at the quantum scale. The problem is that gravity doesn’t seem to “work” in situations that combined the very large and the very small, like black holes, which have a large amount of mass packed into a small volume (size).

Physicists have tried to “quantize” gravity by dividing “it” into “small bits” the same way quantum mechanics breaks down tiny quantities such as particles’ energy levels into even smaller pieces. If you’ve heard the terms “string theory” and “loop quantum gravity,” these are examples of these attempts. So far, none of the theories have been provable.

However, if space was a superfluid it would mean that gravity doesn’t even need to be (or cannot be) quantized. Instead, whatever type of molecules make up spacetime superfluid would be quantized, and that would be possible within the existing parameters of measurement. Doing so would allow theories about gravity and theories about quantum physics to get along with one another.

The Crab Nebula & The Future

There’s a supernova 6,500 light years from Earth called the Crab Nebula that emits high-energy x-ray and gamma-ray light. So far, scientists haven’t been able to measure any dissipative effects of the energy between the supernova and their telescopes. [How do they know? I have no idea.]

Some claim that this is “proof” that space could not be a superfluid because the light should have had dissipative effects. Others state that the near-zero viscosity of a superfluid could mean that dissipation exists in a quantity that we are not yet capable of measuring.

Those interested in the superfluid space theory are hopeful that advancements in technology and discoveries of more phenomena in space similar to the Crab Nebula will allow for further study of the idea.

Additional Reading

If you want to read about Superfluid Space from people who know way more about science and physics than I do, here are some places to get started:

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