**2.2. Quantum zero-point energy**

The introduction of quantum mechanics changes this story somewhat. For one thing, Planck's constant allows us to define a gravitational length scale, the reduced Planck length

(1.6) |

as well as the reduced Planck mass

(1.7) |

where "reduced" means that we have included the
8's where they
really should be. (Note that, with
= 1 and *c* = 1, we have
*L* = *T* = *M*^{-1} = *E*^{-1},
where *L* represents a length scale, *T* a time interval, *M*
a mass scale, and *E* an energy.) Hence,
there is a natural expectation for the scale of the cosmological
constant, namely

(1.8) |

or, phrased as an energy density,

(1.9) |

We can partially justify this guess by thinking about
quantum fluctuations in the vacuum. At all energies probed by
experiment to date, the world is accurately described as a set
of quantum fields (at higher energies it may become strings or
something else). If we take the Fourier transform
of a free quantum field, each mode of fixed wavelength
behaves like a simple
harmonic oscillator. ("Free" means "noninteracting"; for our
purposes this is a very good approximation.) As we know from
elementary quantum mechanics, the ground-state or zero-point energy
of an harmonic oscillator with potential *V*(*x*) = 1/2
^{2}
*x*^{2} is
*E*_{0} = 1/2
. Thus, each mode of a
quantum
field contributes to the vacuum energy, and the net result should be
an integral over all of the modes. Unfortunately this integral
diverges, so the vacuum energy appears to be infinite.
However, the infinity arises from the contribution of modes with
very small wavelengths; perhaps it was a mistake to include such modes,
since we don't really know what might happen at such scales.
To account for our ignorance, we could introduce a cutoff energy,
above which we ignore any potential contributions, and
hope that a more complete theory will eventually provide a physical
justification for doing so. If this cutoff is at the Planck scale,
we recover the estimate (1.9).

The strategy of decomposing a free field into individual modes and
assigning a zero-point energy to each one really only makes sense
in a flat spacetime background. In curved spacetime we can still
"renormalize" the vacuum energy, relating the classical parameter
to the quantum value by an infinite constant. After renormalization,
the vacuum energy is completely arbitrary, just as it was in the original
classical theory. But when we use general relativity we are really
using an effective field theory to describe a certain limit of quantum
gravity. In the context of effective field theory, if a parameter
has dimensions [mass]^{n}, we expect the corresponding mass
parameter to be driven up to the scale at which the effective description
breaks down. Hence, if we believe classical
general relativity up to the Planck scale, we would expect the
vacuum energy to be given by our original guess (1.9).

However, we believe we have now measured the vacuum energy through a combination of Type Ia supernovae (Riess et al. 1998, Perlmutter et al. 1999, Tonry et al. 2003, Knop et al. 2003), microwave background anisotropies (Spergel et al. 2003), and dynamical matter measurements (Verde et al. 2002), to reveal

(1.10) |

or

(1.11) |

For reviews see Sahni and Starobinski 2000, Carroll 2001, or Peebles and Ratra 2003.

Clearly, our guess was not very good.
This is the famous 120-orders-of-magnitude discrepancy that makes
the cosmological constant problem such a glaring embarrassment.
Of course, it is somewhat unfair to emphasize the factor of
10^{120}, which depends on the fact that energy density
has units of [energy]^{4}. We can express the vacuum energy in
terms of a mass scale,

(1.12) |

so our observational result is

(1.13) |

The discrepancy is thus

(1.14) |

We should think of the cosmological constant problem as a discrepancy of 30 orders of magnitude in energy scale.