Hi, your question is really great and made me deal with ideas Ive
wondered about myself. So it was a pleasure to make some headway
below. The one thing to keep in mind is that theories and even data in
this field are always open to change and revision, though the decades
have solidified some aspects pretty well. There is a little wiggle
room in some of the terminology, and even in the accuracy of some
statements taken at face value. But I think Ive narrowed down to the
truth as understood for now!
At The Particle Adventure site they make the statement that
production and annihilation of particle pairs happens so quickly they
cant be observed. This implies that the particles do exist but are
extremely fleeting. I think studying the Heisenberg Uncertainty
Principal will yield different times for different kinds of particles
and masses, but that's a big issue in itself.
Other sites emphasize the existential aspect that the virtual
particles simply cant be observed due to their nature (if they were
observed, they wouldnt exist, or something to that effect). Or that
they are a theoretical constuct based on a statistical probabiliy of
their existence. One example is here at a Stanford Linear Accelerator
A site that approaches the issues but in a rather deeper way (over my
head frankly) is the Matt McIrvin discussion here:
The answer to the second part of your question is that yes, pair
production and annihilation is happening everywhere, and a simple
example from a Fermilab scientist is here:
Finally, the answer to the third part of your question is that the law
of energy conservation (which accounts for mass and energy over time)
is upheld by the theories currently used to describe virtual particle
actions. That means that even though some of the virtual particles
exist, they are the result of the decay of other particles, or are
created from energy such as gamma rays (which is a form of mass,
loosely speaking). Nearly all of the sites make some reference to this
conservation issue. They do suggest that the particles can briefly
have MORE mass than their parents, but this is explained away by the
extremely brief duration of the particles existence.
The most readable explanation I found came from a U of Oregon physics
lecture notes on line, which says quite clearly that even a pure
vacuum, pairs of particles can appear and disappear spontaneously.
This is taught by Jim Imamura and can be found here:
You might then conclude that huge numbers of particles are coming and
going in the deep vacuum of space, as you speculated. But that doesnt
seem to be true.
A clarifying explanation at this Cornell site makes the point that
particle pair production occurs in a vacuum when higher energies are
applied (and the implication is that this isnt a pure vacuum any
more). They go on to very clearly say that most of empty space really
is empty. Here it is:
Another article approaching your last idea directly is this question
and answer forum at a Cornell site, which deals in a more complex way
with the gravity of the tiny pairs during their brief existence, but
it sounds like it is still a hypothetical discussion.
You dont really seem to ask for detailed math (luckily for me) and so
I hope these answers will suit you. This cutting edge of physics will
always have room for doubts, and I think the third part to your
question is potentially unresolved, but it seems that the conventional
conservation of energy limitations keep you from explaining away the
mysterious hidden mass of the universe.
But you never know, sometimes the most brilliant ideas just take some
persistance (and that dreaded math) to make someone believe. That
surely goes beyond us here today. I hope that doesnt disqualify this
Please ask for clarification on anything before rating this answer.
I'm not sure how much more definite I can be, but I want to make sure
you are satisfied! Thanks.
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