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Ye cannae change the laws of physics (or can you?)
The Economist ^ | September 2, 2010 | The Economist

Posted on 09/02/2010 7:16:48 PM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks

RICHARD FEYNMAN, Nobel laureate and physicist extraordinaire, called it a “magic number” and its value “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics”. The number he was referring to, which goes by the symbol alpha and the rather more long-winded name of the fine-structure constant, is magic indeed. If it were a mere 4% bigger or smaller than it is, stars would not be able to sustain the nuclear reactions that synthesise carbon and oxygen atoms. One consequence would be that squishy, carbon-based life would not exist.

Why alpha takes on the precise value it does, so delicately fine-tuned for life, is a deep scientific mystery. A new piece of astrophysical research may, however, have uncovered a crucial piece of the puzzle. In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia presents evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all. Rather, it seems to vary from place to place within the universe. If their results hold up to scrutiny they will have profound implications—for they suggest that the universe stretches far beyond what telescopes can observe, and that the laws of physics vary within it. Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life, then, humanity finds itself in a corner of space where, Goldilocks-like, the values of the fundamental constants happen to be just right for it.

Slightly belying its name, the fine-structure constant is actually a compound of several other physical constants, whose values can be found in any physics textbook. You start with the square of an electron’s charge, divide it by the speed of light and Planck’s constant, then multiply the whole lot by two pi. The point of this laborious procedure is that this combination of multiplication and division produces a pure, dimensionless number. The units in which the original measurements were made cancel each other out and the result is 1/137.036, regardless of the measuring system you used in the first place.

Constant variation

Despite its convoluted origin, alpha has a real meaning. It characterises the strength of the force between electrically charged particles. As such, it governs—among other things—the energy levels of the electrons in an atom. When electrons jump between these energy levels, they absorb and emit light of particular frequencies. These frequencies show up as lines (dark for absorption; bright for emission) in a spectrum. When many different energy levels are involved, as they are in the spectrum of a chemically mixed star, the result is a fine, comb-like structure—hence the constant’s name. If it were to take on a different value, the wavelengths of these lines would change. And that is what Dr Webb and Mr King think they have found.

The light in question comes not from individual stars but from quasars. These are extremely luminous (and distant) galaxies whose energy output is powered by massive black holes at their centres. As light from a quasar travels through space, it passes through clouds of gas that imprint absorption lines onto its spectrum. By measuring the wavelengths of a large collection of these absorption lines and subtracting the effects of the expansion of the universe, the team led by Dr Webb and Mr King was able to measure the value of alpha in places billions of light-years away.

Dr Webb first conducted such a study almost a decade ago, using 76 quasars observed with the Keck telescope in Hawaii. He found that, the farther out he looked, the smaller alpha seemed to be. In astronomy, of course, looking farther away means looking further back in time. The data therefore indicated that alpha was around 0.0006% smaller 9 billion years ago than it is now. That may sound trivial. But any detectable deviation from zero would mean that the laws of physics were different there (and then) from those that pertain in the neighbourhood of the Earth.

Such an important result needed verification using a different telescope, so in 2004 another group of researchers looked from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. They found no evidence for any variation of alpha. Since then, though, flaws have been discovered in that second analysis, so Dr Webb and his team set out to do their own crosscheck with a sample of 60 quasars observed by the VLT.

What they found shocked them. The further back they looked with the VLT, the larger alpha seemed to be—in seeming contradiction to the result they had obtained with the Keck. They realised, however, that there was a crucial difference between the two telescopes: because they are in different hemispheres, they are pointing in opposite directions. Alpha, therefore, is not changing with time; it is varying through space. When they analysed the data from both telescopes in this way, they found a great arc across the sky. Along this arc, the value of alpha changes smoothly, being smaller in one direction and larger in the other. The researchers calculate that there is less than a 1% chance such an effect could arise at random. Furthermore, six of the quasars were observed with both telescopes, allowing them to get an additional handle on their errors.

If the fine-structure constant really does vary through space, it may provide a way of studying the elusive “higher dimensions” that many theories of reality predict, but which are beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth. In these theories, the constants observed in the three-dimensional world are reflections of what happens in higher dimensions. It is natural in these theories for such constants to change their values as the universe expands and evolves.

Alpha and omega

Unfortunately, their method does not allow the team to tell which of the constants that goes into alpha might be changing. But it suggests that at least one of them is. On the other hand, the small value of the change over a distance of 18 billion light-years suggests the whole universe is vastly bigger than that. A diameter of 18 billion light-years (9 billion in each direction) is a considerable percentage of observable reality. The universe being 13.7 billion years old, 13.7 billion light-years—duly stretched to allow for the fact that space is expanding—is the maximum distance it is possible to see in any direction. If the variation Dr Webb and Mr King have found is real, constant, and as gradual as their data suggest, you would have to go a very long way indeed to come to a bit of space where the fine-structure constant was hostile to the existence of life.

If. Other teams of astronomers are already on the case, and Victor Flambaum, one of Dr Webb’s colleagues at the University of New South Wales, points out in a companion paper that laboratory tests involving atomic clocks only slightly better than those that exist already could provide an independent check. These would vary as the solar system moves through the universe. But if and when such confirmation comes, it will break one of physics’s greatest taboos, the assumption that physical laws are the same everywhere and everywhen. And the fine-structure constant will have shown itself to be more mysterious than even Feynman conceived.


TOPICS: Astronomy; History; Science; Weird Stuff
KEYWORDS: alpha; catastrophism; electrogravitics; physics; richardfeynman; scientism; universe

1 posted on 09/02/2010 7:16:55 PM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks
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To: KevinDavis

PING!


2 posted on 09/02/2010 7:17:28 PM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks (Michelle Obama: the woman who ended "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.")
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks
The units in which the original measurements were made cancel each other out and the result is 1/137.036, regardless of the measuring system you used in the first place.

Oh. Wow. I was afraid of that...

3 posted on 09/02/2010 7:22:22 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks
He found that, the farther out he looked, the smaller alpha seemed to be.

Wow. It is worse than I thought...

4 posted on 09/02/2010 7:23:34 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks
Dr Webb first conducted such a study almost a decade ago, using 76 quasars observed with the Keck telescope in Hawaii.

Not only that, but he was unable to detect even a hint of birth certificate anywhere in Hawaii!

5 posted on 09/02/2010 7:24:51 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks
That may sound trivial. But any detectable deviation from zero would mean that the laws of physics were different there (and then) from those that pertain in the neighbourhood of the Earth.

Yes. They actually elect Republicans...

6 posted on 09/02/2010 7:25:46 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: April Lexington

Reminds me of the classic joke about the duality nature of light! Man, I chuckle every time I think of that one.


7 posted on 09/02/2010 7:26:00 PM PDT by optiguy (Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.----- Ronald Reagan)
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To: optiguy

Agreed. A real knee slapper!


8 posted on 09/02/2010 7:27:43 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Understanding the way the universe really works does not diminish my faith in God. In fact, it helps confirm it. So thanks for posting this.


9 posted on 09/02/2010 7:28:07 PM PDT by redpoll
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

It would be amusing if what was changing was pi.


10 posted on 09/02/2010 7:32:24 PM PDT by DBrow
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To: DBrow

Actually, pi is an abstract ratio. The real ratio does change based upon the size of the gravitational or acceleration field.


11 posted on 09/02/2010 7:33:53 PM PDT by MHGinTN (Dem voters, believing they cannot be deceived, it is impossible to convince them when deceived.)
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To: April Lexington

If you truncate precision it comes out to 1/137 exactly, and this did cause consternation. It also drove the strong anthropic theories, until the decimals were added.


12 posted on 09/02/2010 7:34:22 PM PDT by DBrow
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To: MHGinTN

In the accelerating frame, though, measurement of a circle would get pi. If you were in a frame stationary to an accelerating circle, the circle would look oval (if it were oriented correctly).

I don’t think pi changes with gravity, but that’s an interesting concept.

I was thinking of an area of space where if you measured a circle you’d get 3.00000. Lok at all the physical calculations that involve pi! They’d all be different, including the behavior of inductors.


13 posted on 09/02/2010 7:40:35 PM PDT by DBrow
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks; SunkenCiv

Bertrand Russell is foiled again.


14 posted on 09/02/2010 7:40:40 PM PDT by Perdogg (Nancy Pelosi did more damage to America on 03/21 than Al Qaeda did on 09/11)
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To: April Lexington

Wow ! You’re on a roll !


15 posted on 09/02/2010 7:41:49 PM PDT by Celerity
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.

Now, I need to go to a strip club to think about this.


16 posted on 09/02/2010 7:48:46 PM PDT by razorback-bert (Some days it's not worth chewing through the straps.)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Wow, one of the best written pop physics articles I’ve ever come across.


17 posted on 09/02/2010 7:49:15 PM PDT by eclecticEel (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: 7/4/1776 - 3/21/2010)
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To: Celerity

Does anyone have ANY idea what I’m talking about???? I sure don’t...


18 posted on 09/02/2010 7:59:29 PM PDT by April Lexington (Study the constitution so you know what they are taking away!)
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Made me think of William Sidis’ physics, where he concieved of different areas of space having different physical laws. I think he believed time ran backwards in areas. I don’t think so. It would be hard to crawl into the womb at the end of my life . . .


19 posted on 09/02/2010 8:02:21 PM PDT by November 2010
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

If history is any clue, it will not turn out to be so mysterious, and will probably be so simple even a child can understand it.

But for now, it’s seemingly impossible to understand.


20 posted on 09/02/2010 8:04:09 PM PDT by Brilliant
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks
as far as i have understood the universe or multiverse is so vast that every possible variation of every possible combination of variables and possibilities squares from each result ad infinitum.

sounds like a load of crap, but we see a hundred billion times a hundred billion stars out there with our current state of the art crappy optics.

some figure that from any of those hundred billion periphery points the numbers will exponentially increase. in practical application this means that this planet exists in exact form in millions of places at millions of times; as does everything ever observed by us, or others, or none. it is that vast... and expanding @100,000 miles a second. sux, hu.

21 posted on 09/02/2010 8:05:24 PM PDT by mmercier (it is god)
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To: DBrow
I was thinking of an area of space where if you measured a circle you’d get 3.00000.

A Flatlander would be surprised to find that - and it would be possible if his circle is curved in our 3rd dimension, normal to his flat world, like when you hit a tambourine. This is because the Flatlander can measure the diameter only by crawling over the stretched area, without noticing that it is stretched.

22 posted on 09/02/2010 8:07:55 PM PDT by Greysard
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To: April Lexington

hmmm is the reference point for it earth?


23 posted on 09/02/2010 8:45:06 PM PDT by Walkingfeather
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Fascinating.


24 posted on 09/02/2010 8:51:38 PM PDT by TChad
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

No wonder we have climate change. It’s not greenhouse gases it’s the fine structure constant. If I was a climate nazi this would be worth at least a million dollar grant.


25 posted on 09/02/2010 9:07:00 PM PDT by ALPAPilot
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To: MHGinTN
Actually, pi is an abstract ratio.

Huh?!? It's a physically measurable value.

26 posted on 09/02/2010 9:07:32 PM PDT by r9etb
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

I remember having an argument with someone because I stated that we have no basis on which to believe the physical constants as we measure them here on Earth would have exactly the same values if measured elsewhere. I was of the opinion, however, that, no matter their origin, light and particles would be distorted as they enter our section of space, in such a way as to mask the fact that they originated where physical constants are subtly different. The person I was arguing with insisted that physical constants would be the same everywhere.

If what these physicists measured was accurate, then the change of physical constants across space (which I had hypothesized) may not be as resistant to measurement as I had thought.


27 posted on 09/02/2010 9:07:59 PM PDT by exDemMom (Now that I've finally accepted that I'm living a bad hair life, I'm more at peace with the world.)
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To: r9etb
Um, you could measure the radius and the diameter of a circle, but it is the ratio of those two values which nets 'pi' and you cannot write the last digit of pi, unless you've discovered something i'mnot aware of.

Now, using pi in the equation for finding volume of a sperical object, how do you reconcile the fact that as a real gravitation field gets larger, the ratio no longer meets the real volume to surface ratio as calculated with a pi as constant?

28 posted on 09/02/2010 9:16:03 PM PDT by MHGinTN (Dem voters, believing they cannot be deceived, it is impossible to convince them when deceived.)
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BTW, this entire argument for a variable pi based upon changing gravitational field is straight out of the Feynman lectures at CalTech.


29 posted on 09/02/2010 9:17:01 PM PDT by MHGinTN (Dem voters, believing they cannot be deceived, it is impossible to convince them when deceived.)
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To: SunkenCiv; neverdem; Alamo-Girl; betty boop

pinging some of my favorite cosmologists.

I’ve been pointing out for years now that the fine structure constant is not a constant.


30 posted on 09/02/2010 11:16:15 PM PDT by Kevmo (So America gets what America deserves - the destruction of its Constitution. ~Leo Donofrio, 6/1/09)
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To: redpoll
Yep, the more we understand the nature of the universe the more a conscience though is needed from God to make it happen. The Universe is no accident, God though it into existence.
31 posted on 09/03/2010 5:39:14 AM PDT by 2001convSVT ("Repeal ObamaCare")
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks; decimon
Constant-gardener ping.


Frowning takes 68 muscles.
Smiling takes 6.
Pulling this trigger takes 2.
I'm lazy.

32 posted on 09/03/2010 6:19:44 AM PDT by The Comedian
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To: The Comedian

Thanks.

I’m fine with breaking the laws of physics but sneaking in terms like ‘everywhen’ should be taboo.


33 posted on 09/03/2010 6:39:21 AM PDT by decimon
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To: MHGinTN
Um, you could measure the radius and the diameter of a circle, but it is the ratio of those two values which nets 'pi' and you cannot write the last digit of pi, unless you've discovered something i'mnot aware of.

It is nevertheless physically measurable (within the limits of the measuring device), which means that it's not an "abstract" quantity in the normal sense of that word.

34 posted on 09/03/2010 6:48:23 AM PDT by r9etb
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To: Tolerance Sucks Rocks

This thread typifies why I like FreeRepublic so much.


35 posted on 09/03/2010 8:02:32 AM PDT by FourPeas (God Save America)
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To: r9etb

I meant to write ‘radius and circumference of a circle’ ... doing too many threads simultaneously.


36 posted on 09/03/2010 10:10:35 AM PDT by MHGinTN (Dem voters, believing they cannot be deceived, it is impossible to convince them when deceived.)
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To: decimon

While most of this thread is well above my pay-grade, your term “everywhen” elicited a genuine belly-laugh-out-loud from me. thanks.


37 posted on 09/04/2010 2:45:32 AM PDT by Don W (I keep some folks' numbers in my 'phone just so I know NOT to answer when they call...)
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To: Perdogg; Kevmo; 75thOVI; aimhigh; Alice in Wonderland; AndrewC; aragorn; aristotleman; ...
Thanks Perdogg and Kevmo!
Why alpha takes on the precise value it does, so delicately fine-tuned for life, is a deep scientific mystery... In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia presents evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all. Rather, it seems to vary from place to place within the universe... they suggest that the universe stretches far beyond what telescopes can observe, and that the laws of physics vary within it. Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life, then, humanity finds itself in a corner of space where, Goldilocks-like, the values of the fundamental constants happen to be just right for it.
Heh... it will mean that the carbon-based life resulted from and conforms to (or was built according to) the local laws, not because the constants happen to be just right.
 
Catastrophism
 
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38 posted on 09/04/2010 4:41:46 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (Democratic Underground... matters are worse, as their latest fund drive has come up short...)
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To: Kevmo

Thanks for the ping!


39 posted on 09/04/2010 7:05:45 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: redpoll; Tolerance Sucks Rocks

Indeed.

Thanks for posting, TSR.


40 posted on 09/05/2010 7:54:49 PM PDT by onedoug
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