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02-05-2011 - Absolutely nothing

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My physics professor wasn't very happy when I asked him if things would vanish if they reached absolute zero. His attitude was that, since it's impossible, the question itself was a problem. Fast-forward thirty-three years and we find that it is still considered impossible, but we have more information.

It was recently found that glass can melt at a temperature near absolute zero. The molecular arrangement phases into a liquid when the appropriate conditions are met. Many exotic materials and states of matter exist near absolute zero where quantum mechanical properties become dominant.

Energy in a material is a function of temperature. Look a little deeper and temperature resolves into an overall total of the discrete vibrational energies of the material. As the temperature nears absolute zero a state is achieved where only one 'quanta' of energy is left. If this last vestige of energy were to be removed what would happen?

Energy and entropy are intrinsically related and removing the last energy from the system would leave it with zero entropy which would violate the 3rd law of thermodynamics. Mathematicaly, it would be like dividing by zero; it would take infinite energy to achieve absolute zero. But, what would happen? Well, I have no idea, but string theory does characterize everything as vibrating strings. According to the theory a string is connected to all other strings. If a string were to stop vibrating it would have to have never existed.

This is, admittedly, speculation on my part, but if you consider the law of conservation of information you might arrive at the same conclusion. Another way to look at it is that a zero degree system would be isolated from the rest of the universe due to its lack of vibration affectively sealing it off from existence.

An alternative is available if the universe is a hologram in which missing pieces may only affect the projection and not its source. But, our universe, or at least the part we can observe, is ruled by causality. All events have to appear the same for everyone and removing a piece in the chain of causality seems to violate this law of relativity.

This should remind us of another natural limitation, the speed of light. The similarities are surprising. They both would require infinite energy to overcome and would both result in paradoxes. Exceeding the speed of light would result in going back in time. If an object ceased to exist, as it might if it reached absolute zero, it may violate the same principles.

Even if natural laws can't be broken, loopholes may be found that will allow us to artificially alter them. The speed of light hasn't been broken (except maybe by tachyons), but we have artificially slowed it down to a crawl. Investigating the boundary conditions of our environment can put things into perspective and help unlock the potential it has to offer.

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