Quantum mechanics ascribes to the ground state of the electromagnetic radiation1 zero-point electric field fluctuations that permeate empty space at all frequencies. No energy can be extracted from the ground state of a system, and therefore these fluctuations cannot be measured directly with an intensity detector. The experimental proof of their existence therefore came from more indirect evidence, such as the Lamb shift2,3,4, the Casimir force between close conductors5,6,7 or spontaneous emission1,8. A direct method of determining the spectral characteristics of vacuum field fluctuations has so far been missing. Here we perform a direct measurement of the field correlation on these fluctuations in the terahertz frequency range by using electro-optic detection9 in a nonlinear crystal placed in a cryogenic environment. We investigate their temporal and spatial coherence, which, at zero time delay and spatial distance, has a peak value of 6.2 × 10−2 volts squared per square metre, corresponding to a fluctuating vacuum field10,11 of 0.25 volts per metre. With this measurement, we determine the spectral components of the ground state of electromagnetic radiation within the bandwidth of our electro-optic detection.
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This work was funded by the European Research Council (Advanced Grant, Quantum Metamaterials in the Ultra Strong Coupling Regime) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 165639). We acknowledge the mechanical workshop at ETHZ. We acknowledge the contribution of M. Ernzer to the noise analysis tools, E. Mavrona to the design of opto-mechanical components and the extraction of the refractive index of ZnTe, and A. Imamoglu for discussions.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Benea-Chelmus, I., Settembrini, F.F., Scalari, G. et al. Electric field correlation measurements on the electromagnetic vacuum state. Nature 568, 202–206 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1083-9
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