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This is a question about science fiction, but it concerns a very particular piece of physics. I will give a detailed background before getting to a precise statement of my question.

In 1928 Paul Dirac devised a relativistic quantum theory of electrons, in which there were both positive and negative energy solution states. It was rapidly noted that this seemed to create all sorts of problems for the theory, with electrons able to fall from positive to negative energy states, spontaneously releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.

So in 1929, Dirac refined his theory by positing that all the negative energy states were normally filled. Wolfgang Pauli had previously proposed the Pauli Exclusions Principle to explain the spectra of atoms; the Principle stated that two electrons could never be in the same state. So, Dirac's modified theory averred that all the negative energy states were filled, so they were not available as the final states of electron transitions. This led directly to the prediction of the existence of antimatter; positrons or anti-electrons were "holes" in the filled sea of negative energy states.

However, since the filled negative energy states are infinite in number, this brings up issues. Hilbert's Hotel paradox showed how a hotel with an infinite number of filled rooms could still accommodate a finite or even infinite number of new guests. (The mathematician Richard Dedekind showed showed that this property was actually a quite reasonable way of defining an infinite set.)

In John W. Campbell, Jr.'s 1939 novella "Cloak of Aesir" (the second part of "The Story of Aesir"), the author proposed that, by juggling around some the infinite number of negative energy states Dirac had identified, it could be possible to create of absorb energy out of nothing. What was impressive was that this is very close to a real physical phenomenon. The existence of that infinity of quantum states does lead to violations of some conservation laws.

While in realistic (3+1)-dimensional quantum field theories, energy conservation is not affected by these effects, there are more exotic classical conservation laws that are broken. This was discovered in 1969 by Stephen Adler, John Bell, and Roman Jackiw, who noticed that the decay of neutral pions did not seem to be consistent with the conservation of a certain quantity known as the axial vector (or chiral) current. This is known as a quantum anomaly.

The details of the anomalies that do arise in quantum field theories are nothing like those Campbell wrote about. However, the essential idea, that conservation laws could be broken by resorting the infinite sea of negative energy states was correct. What I am curious about is whether this idea was totally original to Campbell, or whether it had been suggested in any other science fiction between 1929 and 1939.

  • This is only possible if you can manipulate an infinite number of these quantum states at once. – wizzwizz4 Feb 22 '18 at 21:28
  • @wizzwizz4 Actually, the real-world anomaly is responsible for a number of particle decays. – Buzz Feb 22 '18 at 22:08
  • No, I mean manipulating them to violate conservation of energy. And it should be rephrased as "in finite time". – wizzwizz4 Feb 23 '18 at 7:58
  • Are you looking for the actual first story, as in the title? Because the question body seems to be asking "was the physics predicted by a SF story?" instead. – Spencer Oct 20 '18 at 3:18
  • @Spencer It is a real physics phenomenon, which was prefigured by Campbell's "Cloak of Aesir." I'm wondering whether there might by other earlier examples of the idea in fiction. – Buzz Oct 20 '18 at 4:13

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