Unruh effect

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The hypothetical Unruh effect (or sometimes Fulling–Davies–Unruh effect) is the prediction that an accelerating observer will observe black-body radiation where an inertial observer would observe none. In other words, the background appears to be warm from an accelerating reference frame; in layman's terms, a thermometer waved around in empty space, subtracting any other contribution to its temperature, will record a non-zero temperature. The ground state for an inertial observer is seen as in thermodynamic equilibrium with a non-zero temperature by the uniformly accelerating observer.

The Unruh effect was first described by Stephen Fulling in 1973, Paul Davies in 1975 and W. G. Unruh in 1976.[1][2][3] It is currently not clear whether the Unruh effect has actually been observed, since the claimed observations are under dispute. There is also some doubt about whether the Unruh effect implies the existence of Unruh radiation.

The equation[edit]

The Unruh temperature, derived by William Unruh in 1976, is the effective temperature experienced by a uniformly accelerating detector in a vacuum field. It is given by[4]

T = \frac{\hbar a}{2\pi c k_\text{B}},

where a is the local acceleration, k_\text{B} is the Boltzmann constant, \hbar is the reduced Planck constant, and c is the speed of light. Thus, for example, a proper acceleration of 2.5 × 1020 m·s−2 corresponds approximately to a temperature of 1 K.

The Unruh temperature has the same form as the Hawking temperature T_\text{H} = \hbar g/(2\pi c k_\text{B}) of a black hole, which was derived (by Stephen Hawking) independently around the same time. It is, therefore, sometimes called the Hawking–Unruh temperature.[5]


Unruh demonstrated theoretically that the notion of vacuum depends on the path of the observer through spacetime. From the viewpoint of the accelerating observer, the vacuum of the inertial observer will look like a state containing many particles in thermal equilibrium—a warm gas.[6]

Although the Unruh effect would initially be perceived as counter-intuitive, it makes sense if the word vacuum is interpreted in a specific way.

In modern terms, the concept of "vacuum" is not the same as "empty space": space is filled with the quantized fields that make up the universe. Vacuum is simply the lowest possible energy state of these fields.

The energy states of any quantized field are defined by the Hamiltonian, based on local conditions, including the time coordinate. According to special relativity, two observers moving relative to each other must use different time coordinates. If those observers are accelerating, there may be no shared coordinate system. Hence, the observers will see different quantum states and thus different vacua.

In some cases, the vacuum of one observer is not even in the space of quantum states of the other. In technical terms, this comes about because the two vacua lead to unitarily inequivalent representations of the quantum field canonical commutation relations. This is because two mutually accelerating observers may not be able to find a globally defined coordinate transformation relating their coordinate choices.

An accelerating observer will perceive an apparent event horizon forming (see Rindler spacetime). The existence of Unruh radiation could be linked to this apparent event horizon, putting it in the same conceptual framework as Hawking radiation. On the other hand, the theory of the Unruh effect explains that the definition of what constitutes a "particle" depends on the state of motion of the observer.

The free field needs to be decomposed into positive and negative frequency components before defining the creation and annihilation operators. This can only be done in spacetimes with a timelike Killing vector field. This decomposition happens to be different in Cartesian and Rindler coordinates (although the two are related by a Bogoliubov transformation). This explains why the "particle numbers", which are defined in terms of the creation and annihilation operators, are different in both coordinates.

The Rindler spacetime has a horizon, and locally any non-extremal black hole horizon is Rindler. So the Rindler spacetime gives the local properties of black holes and cosmological horizons. The Unruh effect would then be the near-horizon form of the Hawking radiation.


In special relativity, an observer moving with uniform proper acceleration a through Minkowski spacetime is conveniently described with Rindler coordinates. The line element in Rindler coordinates is

ds^2 = -\rho^2 d\sigma^2 + d\rho^2,

where \rho = 1/a, and where \sigma is related to the observer's proper time \tau by  \sigma = a\tau (here c = 1). Rindler coordinates are related to the standard (Cartesian) Minkowski coordinates by

 x= \rho \cosh\sigma
 t= \rho \sinh\sigma.

An observer moving with fixed \rho traces out a hyperbola in Minkowski space.

An observer moving along a path of constant \rho is uniformly accelerating, and is coupled to field modes which have a definite steady frequency as a function of \sigma. These modes are constantly Doppler shifted relative to ordinary Minkowski time as the detector accelerates, and they change in frequency by enormous factors, even after only a short proper time.

Translation in \sigma is a symmetry of Minkowski space: It is a boost around the origin. For a detector coupled to modes with a definite frequency in \sigma, the boost operator is then the Hamiltonian. In the Euclidean field theory, these boosts analytically continue to rotations, and the rotations close after 2\pi. So

e^{2\pi i H} = 1.

The path integral for this Hamiltonian is closed with period 2\pi which guarantees that the H modes are thermally occupied with temperature \scriptstyle (2\pi)^{-1}. This is not an actual temperature, because H is dimensionless. It is conjugate to the timelike polar angle \sigma which is also dimensionless. To restore the length dimension, note that a mode of fixed frequency f in \sigma at position \rho has a frequency which is determined by the square root of the (absolute value of the) metric at \rho, the redshift factor. From the equation for the line element given above, it is easily seen that this is just \rho. The actual inverse temperature at this point is therefore

\beta= 2\pi \rho.

Since the acceleration of a trajectory at constant \rho is equal to 1/a, the actual inverse temperature observed is

\beta = {2\pi \over a}.

Restoring units yields

k_\text{B}T = \frac{\hbar a}{2\pi c}.

The temperature of the vacuum, seen by an isolated observer accelerating at the Earth's gravitational acceleration of g = 9.81 m·s−2, is only 4×10−20 K. For an experimental test of the Unruh effect it is planned to use accelerations up to 1026 m·s−2, which would give a temperature of about 400,000 K.[7][8]

To put this in perspective, at a vacuum Unruh temperature of 3.978×10−20 K, an electron would have a de Broglie wavelength of h/√(3mekT) = 540.85 m, and a proton at that temperature would have a wavelength of 12.62 m. If electrons and protons were in intimate contact in a very cold vacuum, they would have rather long wavelengths and interaction distances.

At one astronomical unit from the sun, the acceleration is  \frac{GM_{S}}{\mathrm{\left(1~AU\right)}^{2}} = 0.005932~\mathrm{m\cdot s^{-2}}. This gives an Unruh temperature of 2.41×10−23 K. At that temperature, the electron and proton wavelengths are 21.994 km and 513 m, respectively. Even a uranium atom will have a wavelength of 2.2 m at such a low temperature.

Other implications[edit]

The Unruh effect would also cause the decay rate of accelerating particles to differ from inertial particles. Stable particles like the electron could have nonzero transition rates to higher mass states when accelerating at a high enough rate.[9][10][11]

Unruh radiation[edit]

Although Unruh's prediction that an accelerating detector would see a thermal bath is not controversial, the interpretation of the transitions in the detector in the non-accelerating frame are. It is widely, although not universally, believed that each transition in the detector is accompanied by the emission of a particle, and that this particle will propagate to infinity and be seen as Unruh radiation.

The existence of Unruh radiation is not universally accepted. Some claim that it has already been observed,[12] while others claim that it is not emitted at all.[13] While the skeptics accept that an accelerating object thermalises at the Unruh temperature, they do not believe that this leads to the emission of photons, arguing that the emission and absorption rates of the accelerating particle are balanced.

Experimental observation of the Unruh effect[edit]

Researchers claim experiments that successfully detected the Sokolov–Ternov effect[14] may also detect the Unruh effect under certain conditions.[15]

Theoretical work in 2011 suggests that accelerating detectors might be used for the direct detection of the Unruh effect with current technology.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ S.A. Fulling (1973). "Nonuniqueness of Canonical Field Quantization in Riemannian Space-Time". Physical Review D 7 (10): 2850. Bibcode:1973PhRvD...7.2850F. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.7.2850. 
  2. ^ P.C.W. Davies (1975). "Scalar production in Schwarzschild and Rindler metrics". Journal of Physics A 8 (4): 609. Bibcode:1975JPhA....8..609D. doi:10.1088/0305-4470/8/4/022. 
  3. ^ W.G. Unruh (1976). "Notes on black-hole evaporation". Physical Review D 14 (4): 870. Bibcode:1976PhRvD..14..870U. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.14.870. 
  4. ^ See equation 7.6 in W.G. Unruh (2001). "Black Holes, Dumb Holes, and Entropy". Physics meets Philosophy at the Planck Scale. Cambridge University Press. pp. 152–173. 
  5. ^ P.M. Alsing, P.W. Milonni (2004). "Simplified derivation of the Hawking-Unruh temperature for an accelerated observer in vacuum". American Journal of Physics 72 (12): 1524. arXiv:quant-ph/0401170v2. Bibcode:2004AmJPh..72.1524A. doi:10.1119/1.1761064. 
  6. ^ Reinhold A. Bertlmann & Anton Zeilinger (2002). Quantum (un)speakables: From Bell to Quantum Information. Springer. p. 401 ff. ISBN 3-540-42756-2. 
  7. ^ M. Visser (2001). "Experimental Unruh radiation?". Newsletter of the APS Topical Group on Gravitation 17: 2044. arXiv:gr-qc/0102044. Bibcode:2001gr.qc.....2044P. 
  8. ^ H.C. Rosu (2001). "Hawking-like effects and Unruh-like effects: Toward experiments?". Gravitation and Cosmology 7: 1. arXiv:gr-qc/9406012. Bibcode:1994gr.qc.....6012R. 
  9. ^ R. Mueller (1997). "Decay of accelerated particles". Physical Review D 56 (2): 953–960. arXiv:hep-th/9706016. Bibcode:1997PhRvD..56..953M. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.56.953. 
  10. ^ D.A.T. Vanzella, G.E.A. Matsas (2001). "Decay of accelerated protons and the existence of the Fulling-Davies-Unruh effect". Physical Review Letters 87 (15): 151301. arXiv:gr-qc/0104030. Bibcode:2001PhRvL..87o1301V. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.87.151301. 
  11. ^ H. Suzuki, K. Yamada (2003). "Analytic Evaluation of the Decay Rate for Accelerated Proton". Physical Review D 67 (6): 065002. arXiv:gr-qc/0211056. Bibcode:2003PhRvD..67f5002S. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.67.065002. 
  12. ^ I.I. Smolyaninov (2005). "Photoluminescence from a gold nanotip as an example of tabletop Unruh-Hawking radiation". Physics Letters A 372 (47): 7043–7045. arXiv:cond-mat/0510743. Bibcode:2008PhLA..372.7043S. doi:10.1016/j.physleta.2008.10.061. 
  13. ^ G.W. Ford, R.F. O'Connell (2005). "Is there Unruh radiation?". Physics Letters A 350: 17–26. arXiv:quant-ph/0509151. Bibcode:2006PhLA..350...17F. doi:10.1016/j.physleta.2005.09.068. 
  14. ^ Bell, J. S.; Leinaas, J. M. (7 February 1983). "Electrons as accelerated thermometers". Nuclear Physics B 212 (1): 131–150. Bibcode:1983NuPhB.212..131B. doi:10.1016/0550-3213(83)90601-6. 
  15. ^ E.T. Akhmedov, D. Singleton (2007). "On the physical meaning of the Unruh effect". JETP Letters 86 (9): 615–619. arXiv:0705.2525. Bibcode:2007JETPL..86..615A. doi:10.1134/S0021364007210138. 
  16. ^ E. Martín-Martínez, I. Fuentes, R. B. Mann (2011). "Using Berry’s Phase to Detect the Unruh Effect at Lower Accelerations". Physical Review Letters 107 (13): 131301. arXiv:1012.2208. Bibcode:2011PhRvL.107m1301M. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.107.131301. 

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