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Fine Structure Constant May Not Be So Constant 273

Posted by Soulskill
from the pi-is-exactly-three dept.
BuzzSkyline writes "According to a post at Physics Buzz, 'Just weeks after speeding neutrinos seem to have broken the speed of light, another universal law, the fine structure constant might be about to crumble.' Astronomical observations seem to indicate that the constant, which controls the strength of electromagnetic interactions, is different in distant parts of the universe. Among other things, the paper may explain why the laws of physics in our corner of the universe seem to be finely tuned to support life. The research (abstract) is so controversial that it took over a year to go from submission to publication in Physical Review Letters, rather than the weeks typical of most other papers appearing in the peer-reviewed journal."
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Fine Structure Constant May Not Be So Constant

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  • Okay (Score:5, Funny)

    by durrr (1316311) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @11:41AM (#37935542)
    So rename it the Fine Structure Variable then.
    • by mapkinase (958129)

      It's a Constant alright but only for selected areas.

      -- "Desmond will be my constant".

  • Awesome (Score:4, Informative)

    by demonbug (309515) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @11:44AM (#37935584) Journal

    So how far do we have to go to get out of the Slow Zone?

  • Zones of thought! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Thursday November 03, 2011 @11:44AM (#37935586) Homepage

    When this news was published on another news for nerds site (Slashdot is quite slow these days), several commenters brought up Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire upon the Deep [amazon.com] . In that far-future musing on the growth of civilizations and technological singularities, Vinge had the Milky Way galaxy divided into various zones which limited how complex technology could be. At the centre, even the simplest machines would fall apart. Further out, electronics and other 20th-century devices worked, but nanotechnology was less effective. Any race moving to the outskirts of the galaxy reached technological progress undreamed of elsewhere.

    Vinge made it clear that the Zones were the artificial creation of an ancient advanced race, not the natural result of physics. This news is thought-provoking in that the constants for life and perhaps technology change naturally throughout the universe. It's not just science catching up with science-fiction, but rather science anticipating something generally unexpected., though didn't Poul Anderson write a story of changing laws of physics too?

    • I was just going to say the same thing!

      ...well actually all i was going to say was "Zones of Thought, here we come!" but close enough for government work :)

      Or i could just say that i wrote a long and insightful post, but it suffered from poor translation over multiple relay hops.
    • by Tapewolf (1639955)
      I believe the sequel is due out later this month.
      • by Daetrin (576516)
        The sequel came out a couple weeks ago, i just finished it yesterday. It's much less of a big idea book than either "A Fire Upon the Deep" or "A Deepness in the Sky". There's some exploration of the details of hive minds and such that didn't get covered before, but nothing really new gets introduced. Very much a generic sequel type book, albeit a well written one about an interesting world.
    • by meerling (1487879)
      The Starshield series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman is very similar. Though in that series, the zones move, they include all types of technologies and magics, and most species think they are natural. It was published later than Vinges stuff, so maybe it was inspired by it.
    • Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds, has a similar premise, but is based on Mars.

    • Also see Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves. Short version: matter being exchanged with another universe also causes "physics" to be exchanged, namely the exact strength of the nuclear forces, and the question becomes if the new physical constants propagate at the speed of light.
    • didn't Poul Anderson write a story of changing laws of physics too?

        Brain Wave [wikipedia.org]? Though that wasn't changing laws of physics per se, it was an unspecified 'field' that limited neural activity. Entering the field caused the Cretaceousâ"Tertiary extinction event, and the book begins as the solar system exits the field.

  • Reproducibility? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by n5vb (587569) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @11:48AM (#37935660)
    '“The thing that troubles me about it is [in] the preprint, [t]hey had originally had a supplemental figure at the end that showed the original results for the individual quasars they measured,” Orzel said. He explained that in that figure, the Keck telescope in the Northern Hemisphere seemed to predominantly measure the variation of alpha in one direction while Chile’s VLT in the Southern Hemisphere measured it in going the other way. “It looks a lot like what they’re seeing is coming from a difference between the two telescopes.”'

    Very much want to see independent confirmation of this result, if instrumentation error hasn't been controlled for ..
    • In a sense, this is similar to the 'fast neutrino' story. Potentially paradigm shifting research done on hugely complicated machines that even a team of dedicated researchers (not to mention the hoards of armchair scientists here) cannot fully understand.

      Nothing wrong with this - the secrets of the Universe won't necessarily fall to some kid in his basement playing with a hacked Wii, just a cautionary tale.

      • Of course there could be systematic error, but the source must be pretty subtle. The authors have done a pretty large study (in two "two be published" papers).

        The implied fine structure constant is derived from relationships among various spectral lines not some large overall effect. The paper mentions that there are 6 quasars which have observations at both telescopes, and they used these data to do some reasonably sophisticated statistical checks.

        The best fit to the systematic error corrections between th

    • http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.3907 [arxiv.org] Looks pretty much like it, for anyone interested. And as always, extraordinary claims will require extraordinary proof, so we'll have to wait a bit.
  • Many astronomical/physics models _ASSUME_ that the universe has the same fundamental laws across the entire universe. If this holds true, it will throw a lot of models into question, including dark energy and dark matter. Personally, I find it very possible that there will be variations across the universe, based on dependencies we don't know/see/understand. Just because I see snow everywhere I look in Antarctica doesn't mean I should expect to see snow everywhere I look in Africa.

    • by mapkinase (958129)

      "Just because I see snow everywhere I look in Antarctica doesn't mean I should expect to see snow everywhere I look in Africa."

      No, it's not about that. It'is about the snow on the top of Kilimanjaro (when it was still there) having the same 6 ray local symmetry as the snow in Antarctica.

      • You don't do well with analogies, do you?

      • Kilimanjaro and Antarctica is the same place, in the scale of the universe.
        Where is it written that natural laws are equal everywhere? all the time? Tomorrow E=mc^3 is improbable not impossible.

        On the other hand, even as I'm arguing with atheists all the time, the "finely tuned" terms used to define conditions for life is a post facto rationalization, not an argument. You can't say anything about what would have happened if laws were different, you have not enough power to model such scenario. So if our fin

        • If you believe, a god can fine tune whatever he wants from the very beginning, if you don't nothing is tuned because there is not the tuner.

          Not quite correctly stated. The conclusion has nothing to do with what you believe, it is a belief. The correct statement would be something like: "If a god exists and has sufficient complexity to be considered `alive' and `sentient' and sufficient entropy to be able to experience something like `desire' -- all necessary to "want something", and if there is such a
    • Kind of like how the angle of "down" varies based on the slope of the ground you're standing on? Nah. If the Standard Model says it, it must be right. Expect a huge backlash from this paper.
    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      But then again if you will never, ever, ever leave Antarctica because Africa is just too far away for either you or your species to ever travel that distance - does it matter?
    • Dark energy and Dark Matter have always seemed like concepts devised for the sole purpose of making the existing theoretical physics and math models work. We have managed to manipulate the EM spectrum and initiate nuclear reactions to produce a crude and dangerous power source but we still have a long way to go and I imagine we will encounter many surprises along the way that will make today's knowledge seem quaint. Of course any further advances will depend on whether or not the human race ends up destroyi
      • Dark energy and Dark matter are very different things which address very different problems in astronomy - the only thing they have in common is the term "dark", used because they are both describing forces and objects which are inferred to exist by - well a force we conventionally don't consider ourselves to "see" (gravity).

        Dark matter has been very convincingly observed [stanford.edu] in the bullet cluster, for example.

        Your disbelief is essentially a limitation of human senses - we're EM friendly beings, particularly in

    • by DCFusor (1763438)
      Yes, it does, and the real danger is those dependencies are rarely stated with discipline as they must be in programming. Many astronomers actually couldn't even list them all - and I suspect that already there are a few circular ones extant, which probably are what make "dark" this and that necessary to fit the curves. We really could use for theory to require the same discipline that coding does in this case at least - it would show most cosmology for the utter house of cards it is - which is perhaps wh
    • by Chris Burke (6130) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @01:04PM (#37936968) Homepage

      Many astronomical/physics models _ASSUME_ that the universe has the same fundamental laws across the entire universe.

      Indeed. It's an assumption that's worked very well for us so far, but it is still just an assumption.

      Much like it is an assumption that we live in a causal universe; the loss of this sanity-preserving assumption being one of the possible consequences of the FTL neutrinos being real.

      Personally, I find it very possible that there will be variations across the universe, based on dependencies we don't know/see/understand.

      If those dependencies are the same everywhere, but local conditions cause the apparent behavior to differ, then our base assumption is still correct, it's just we weren't looking at a fundamental enough set of rules.

      Just because I see snow everywhere I look in Antarctica doesn't mean I should expect to see snow everywhere I look in Africa.

      The rules that cause it to snow in Antarctica are the same as the rules that cause it to not snow in the Sahara. The rules that cause there to be very little precipitation at all in both places are the same as the rules that cause it to rain a lot in the Amazon.

      When one says that one shouldn't expect things to be the same in different places, this is trivial when "things" are conditions and thus effects, and a vastly deeper meaning when "things" are the laws that cause different conditions to result in different effects. It isn't obvious that this is a natural extension or expectation.

      It still could be the universe we live in, though. I worry that if the laws of physics are truly different in different parts of the universe -- not that what we think of as the laws are the consequence of a deeper set of laws and varying conditions -- that this means it will be basically impossible for us to make sense of the large-scale universe. Much like how a non-causal universe would mean we might never be able to understand the universe outside of the range of conditions where causality appears to hold.

  • Quasars in the northern hemisphere seemed to have a slightly smaller value for alpha, while those in the northern hemisphere tended to have a slightly higher value.

    Schrodinger's Quasars? Both larger/smaller in the Northern Hemisphere?

    • Or like Heisenberg's. We know so well the Earth's speed and alpha's speed of change, we don't know where we are. :P

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:00PM (#37935832)

    "may explain why the laws of physics in our corner of the universe seem to be finely tuned to support life"
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphic_principle [wikipedia.org]
    The universe is not tuned for life. We are tuned for the universe.

    • by Twinbee (767046)

      Or how about: out part of the universe is tuned for life?

    • Just because we are tuned to the conditions around us does not mean that the conditions around us weren't tuned to produce us in the first place.
      • Is this the latest version of the creationist argument? I'm just curious. We've gone from "we were handmade out of clay" to "conditions were set (by a vast entity with enormous amounts of organized structure that surely must be emergent temporal order arising from a set of internal rules governing the parts from which it is composed) so that we (humans) would randomly evolve"? Isn't the oxymoron in their apparent? The whole, vast range of oxymorons?

        rgb
        • Is this the latest version of the creationist argument? I'm just curious. We've gone from "we were handmade out of clay" to "conditions were set (by a vast entity with enormous amounts of organized structure that surely must be emergent temporal order arising from a set of internal rules governing the parts from which it is composed) so that we (humans) would randomly evolve"?

          Perhaps it is. It seems to me that a being capable of doing "let there be light" has got his hands on the controls of the fundamental constants of the universe.

          • Sigh. And what are those "hands" made of, what are the controls used, what are the even more fundamental constants of the Universe in which those hands and controls are constructs?

            I know, I know. They are "magic", right? Or you will say something like "I don't know" as if the very impossibility of imagining a model meta-Universe containing God (and then a meta-meta-Universe and so on as needed) is some sort of excuse for claiming that this one requires an outside explanation (God) but God's Universe
    • by timeOday (582209)
      Hopefully by "finely tuned to support life," they didn't actually mean just us and similar to us (such as all life on this planet). A change in a basic physical constant or two could easily lead to very un-interesting universes, such as all matter being in a single black hole, or all matter in stars, or all matter evenly and homogeneously dispersed throughout space, or no nuclear reactions happening anywhere (thus no energy for anything interesting to happen).
  • by painandgreed (692585) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:02PM (#37935858)
    In one of the physics books I've been reading, it was seriously talking about tachyons and that they could exist in our universe. They even said they probably did exist in the early universe, and it was the instabilities caused by them that helped the universe form. Existence of tachyons would be a sign of a false vacuum [wikipedia.org]. They tachyons form an instability and cause a change to a more stable energy state. This energy state expands at the speed of light till the entire universe (or at least everything inside the Hubble Limit) which would mean new physical constants and different laws of physics. That we are observing two different sets of physics might be a sign of such a energy state change, and luckily, that we are seeing two means that we are already at the newer state. However, if neutrinos actually are acting as tachyons, it might mean we are not done yet (although in a fairly stable spot).
  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:02PM (#37935864) Journal

    I am not a theoetical physicist, I don't play one on TV and I didn't stay at a Holiday Express last night.

    But I've always wondered how we know that the speed of light is the same regardless, that the gravitational constant is constant throughout space and time. Yes, I understand that you have to assume consistency until proven otherwise. Frankly, I am not convinved that the last two "discoveries" will pan out and that we've found non-constant constants. But it confirms to me that this is not a resolved question like so many others have claimed when I have asked the question.

    All of it makes me wonder what the mechanism is that determines c or the gravitational constant, the electro weak force and a myriad of other variables that determine the way the universe exists. The only thing that is clear to me is that we understand so freaking little compared to the way the universe must truly be.

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      It doesn't "have to" be the same everywhere, but then you have to a) give a suitable explanation as to why it wouldn't be the same and b) come up with some experimental data that backs this up.
      • On the other hand if it doesn't "have to" be the same everywhere, why don't you have to a) give a suitable explanation as to why it would be the same and b) come up with some experimental data that backs this up?
        • Because we live in a freaking corner of a small room of a really small house in the middle of a ginormous world. We've been space faring for less than a century and there are only a handful of human beings who have been past LEO. We are woefully ignorant of the universe at this point. It is a starting point. I only ask that we imagine that what we think of as constants may not be constants.

        • by Dunbal (464142) *
          If these questions puzzle you then you should continue studying theology and give up on science and rational thought altogether. Keeping an "open mind" is not the same as foolishly believing any random crap any random person says. If you make an extra-ordinary claim ("things are different"), you are the one with the burden of proof.
        • by Prune (557140)
        • by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb.phy@duke@edu> on Thursday November 03, 2011 @02:26PM (#37938276) Homepage
          Explanation: a) "Because it works, pretty much, to explain all or nearly all of the observational data, including things like the fact that spectral lines from very distant suns are recognizably correspondent with the lines as measured in a laboratory on Earth. Note that (for example) those lines are predicted, in part, by the fine structure constant, which is why there is rather enormous opposition to the notion that it isn't constant. It is visibly constant almost anywhere we look, or the entire field of spectroscopy would be inconsistent and inexplicable observations would exist in abundance; b) See a). The problem is that there is a lot of data that is perfectly consistent with \alpha being constant. There is a nearly complete lack of data suggesting otherwise. That doesn't mean that it is constant -- \alpha could easily be a quantity that follows from a far more general physics in higher dimensions that isn't homogeneous -- and belief that it is isn't religious belief. It is that one would rather have expected spectroscopy to have egregiously failed long before this if it were not a constant, and it hasn't. Or if it has, this is the first announcement that may or may not prove to be a reliable observation of an exception.

          The point is, it is best to believe the things that best fit the data (and satisfy a few other requirements, such as consistency, parsimony, and so on) all the time, but not unreasonably best belief moves around as we obtain more data and discover and resolve inconsistencies. It moves around slowly because we have learned from experience to doubt observations unless/until a certain standard of consistency, parsimony, observational reproducibility, and so on has been reached. New physics is always great fun, skepticism is better than unreasoning belief, but reasoned, evidence-based conditional belief, believing the most in those things one can doubt the least (when one tries to doubt very hard), is a lot better than jumping on and believing every half-assed claim that is made on the basis of possibly flawed methodology and revelling in it just because it proves that "we don't know everything" and that therefore, very smart people aren't as smart as they think they are (closing the gap mentally between yourself, so quick to see the truth of it all, and them, the fools).

          Does that pretty much sum up much of the discussion above, so far?

          A sound result will prove to be reproducible and even a sound result (as far as the observation is concerned) may have many possible explanations, including (quite possibly) ones that don't mess with the fine structure constant. For example, the precession of the orbit of mercury could be viewed as a violation of the law of gravitation, and in one sense it is, but in a deeper sense it is not -- gravity is all right but it needs to be formulated in a relativistically curved spacetime -- the real error is in assumptions made about space and time itself, not "gravity".

          rgb
          • by mbkennel (97636)

            "The problem is that there is a lot of data that is perfectly consistent with \alpha being constant. There is a nearly complete lack of data suggesting otherwise."

            Until now. And yes, the point is that if you look at stars inside the galaxy and many others \alpha is constant---only with a systematic search on the most distant quasars literally on the other side of the universe do you see an effect which is a relative 0.5 * 10^(-5) deviation.

            It's just like the fact that space is nearly exactly flat everywher

            • I understand the point -- it is indeed "until now", but there is a vast preponderance of data in prior existence where it appears to be quite constant. Also, as noted above, their results have been presented before and challenged in the literature on what appear to be sound grounds, including a certain statistical weakness that is often the signature of bad science. The rules of science mean that new, extraordinary results and their attendant claims are false until proven otherwise by a wealth of new data
      • by Jamu (852752)
        c is the maximum speed. Things with no inertia, obviously, travel at this speed. This is why it's the speed of light in a vacuum for example. The "mechanism" that determines c is space-time, the speed c, is a null (zero) metric in space-time. Other than defining what it is (299792458 m/s for example), it doesn't have an arbitrary value. Our understanding of space-time could be wrong, but what would the value of c vary against? It's the maximum speed by definition. What (constant) speed could we compare it t
    • by jfengel (409917)

      We do have the ability to look out into space, sometimes pretty far, and we can observe that some things happen the same way there as out here.

      You can observe things like the color of distant stars, the rotations of galaxies, even the cosmic background radiation. We can see, for example, that hot hydrogen on a distant star has exactly the same kind of spectroscopic signature that hydrogen here on earth does.

      The simplest explanation for that is that the fine structure constant is the same there as here. Th

      • by slashbart (316113)

        You can observe things like the color of distant stars, the rotations of galaxies, even the cosmic background radiation. We can see, for example, that hot hydrogen on a distant star has exactly the same kind of spectroscopic signature that hydrogen here on earth does.

        But we don't, we see a redshifted version. We have explained that this is because the galaxy is moving away but maybe it's something else.
        P.S. I am a physicist, an experimental type.

        • by jfengel (409917)

          Right, I didn't want my comment to be any more involved than it already was. I did try to allude to it.

          Yes, we see a redshifted version, and the simplest explanation so far that matches the data to a lot of decimal places is that the hydrogen is/was doing exactly the same thing when it left the source, and we see it shifted to the red. Or it could be some other model, but just tinkering with the fine tuning constant (or other constants) doesn't fit the data. You'd need a lot of other changes, which ultim

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        Agreed on all points, but then again it wasn't until fairly recently that anybody spotted problems with Newtonian physics.

        Physics is based on data, and data is collected only from what you can observe. If all you look at is billiard balls then you'll never come up with relativity. As our ability to gather information about the universe increases we may find more and more stuff that doesn't fit the current mold, and that's a good thing.

        Dark matter hints that we don't fully understand gravity on the large s

  • "The laws of physics in our corner of the universe seem to be finely tuned to support life."
    Now don't run into too quick conclusions! We don't really know whether this corner supports life better than the rest of this vast space, do we?
    The life is so complicated.

    • It's not so much that that laws were tuned to support life, but that life formed where the laws happened to be suitable.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      Well it's not really about supporting life, but much more basic things like allowing matter to form, allowing stars to exist etc.

  • by ifrag (984323) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:11PM (#37935994)

    Astronomical observations seem to indicate that the constant, which controls the strength of electromagnetic interactions

    This is just too glaringly bad to not bash, although there probably have been worse summaries. The constant does NOT CONTROL ANYTHING about the physical universe, as that is obviously the whole point of this research. It is simply a number which we have determined appropriately models the physics we are able to explore and understand to some degree.

    • by mbkennel (97636)

      "it is simply a number which we have determined appropriately models the physics we are able to explore and understand to some degree."

      as an essential and elementary free parameter of the quantum theory, I'd say that counts as much as anything else as "control something about the physical universe".

  • Getting really tired of hearing this. Nothing is finely tuned for life. As far as we know, it takes certain conditions for very complex life to form, but that simply means that complex life will only form in those conditions, and here we are. If there were no regions in this universe with the right conditions for complex life we would not be here.
  • by YTMDetc (2453116) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:19PM (#37936112)
    Alpha is actually made up of several constants, as shown in the wikipedia article. So, the question is, if this is indeed the case that alpha isn't constant, which of these 'constants' is actually not a constant? e is the elementary charge. The charge on a proton (-e for an electron). Somehow I think this is unlikely not to be a constant as for all intents and purposes all protons are the same as any other proton, same with electrons. h is the Planck constant, which relates energy to frequency of electromagnetic waves, for example. I'd say that it's a relational constant to create different ways of saying the same thing, so I wouldn't think this is a variable. c is the speed of light in vacuum, 0 is the permittivity of free space, 0 is the magnetic constant or permeability of free space. All three are related by Maxwell's laws. My guess is that it might be one (or all, or some) of these that would be the most likely to not be a variable. Of course, as with the faster-than-light neutrinos, we'll just have to wait for the results to be checked before we can jump to any radical conclusions...
    • by Hentes (2461350)

      I think the value of pi is different in different regions of space.

      • And if you defined pi (incorrectly) as the number of radians in the sum of the angles of a triangle, you'd be right! Good job!

        rgb
  • by bcrowell (177657) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:23PM (#37936166) Homepage

    First off, the slashdot summary is somewhat misleading, because the result is not new. Their result was announced in August 2010: http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.3907 [arxiv.org] . What is new is that they finally managed to get it published in a peer-reviewed journal. You can't judge whether it's right or wrong simply based on whether it's been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review doesn't judge whether a result is right, or whether it can be reproduced. Peer review just tries to judge whether there are obvious mistakes, and things like whether it properly cites the previous literature. The fact that the journal is a prestigious one also doesn't mean it's right; it just means that *if* it were right, it would be of a high level of scientific importance.

    Second, it's not really correct to say that the result is controversial. It's not controversial. It's wrong, and the fact that it's wrong is uncontroversial. Just because there's an overwhelming consensus that a result is wrong, that doesn't mean it can't be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Below is a FAQ entry I wrote about this stuff.

    Has the fine structure constant changed over cosmological timescales?

    It has been claimed based on astronomical observations that the unitless fine-structure constant alpha=e^2/hbar*c actually varies over time, rather than being fixed.[Webb 2001] This claim is probably wrong, since later attempts to reproduce the observations failed.[Chand 2004] Rosenband et al.[Rosenband 2008] have done laboratory measurements that rule out a linear decrease of alpha with time large enough to be consistent with Webb's results.

    Webb et al. have recently made even more extraordinary claims that the fine structure constant varies over the celestial sphere.[Webb 2010] Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and Webb et al. have not supplied that; their results are at the margins of statistical significance compared to their random and systematic errors.

    Even if their claims are correct, this is not evidence that c is changing, as is sometimes stated in the popular press. If an experiment is to test whether a fundamental constant is really constant, the constant must be unitless.[Duff 2002] If the fine-structure constant does vary, there is no empirical way to assign blame to c as opposed to hbar or e. John Baez has a nice web page discussing the unitless constants of nature.

    J.K. Webb et al., 2000, "Further Evidence for Cosmological Evolution of the Fine Structure Constant," http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0012539v3 [arxiv.org]

    J.K. Webb et al., 2010, "Evidence for spatial variation of the fine structure constant," http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.3907 [arxiv.org]

    H. Chand et al., 2004, Astron. Astrophys. 417: 853, http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0401094 [arxiv.org]

    Srianand et al., 2004, Phys.Rev.Lett.92:121302, http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0402177 [arxiv.org]

    Duff, 2002, "Comment on time-variation of fundamental constants," http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0208093 [arxiv.org]

    Baez, http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/constants.html [ucr.edu]

    Rosenband et al., 2008, 319 (5871): 1808-1812, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5871/1808.abstract [sciencemag.org]

    • by arkenian (1560563)
      That said, and I've been out of the business for a long time, I remember back when I _WAS_ in the business that this was exactly the sort of thing we were looking for in the hopes that it could help explain inflation . . . although we never came up with a good mathematical construct for the variance that did what we wanted, setting aside any sort of observational evidence (pesky stuff, that.) I have to say that that abstract, though, is one of the best examples of pretzel twisting to avoid stating a conclu
    • Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar, and should be revered by your peers and worshipped openly by your many, many inferiors.

      I sincerely regret the abuse that I'm certain will be heaped upon you for having the temerity to state the obvious and worse, actually back it up with references. Be thankful that at least it is difficult to reach you with pitchforks and torches.

      Ah, well, you tried. I guess I'll continue to skim down and glance at the abuse.

      rgb
  • So ... they look at one spot on the sky with Keck and discover that the fine structure constant used to be smaller than it is today. Then they look at a different spot on the sky with VLT, and find that the fine structure constant used to be bigger than it is today. So, instead of thinking "Hmm ... the results from these two different observations are contradictory. Perhaps the entire effect is a systematic," they publish a paper in PRL claiming a dipole! Fucking brilliant!

    PRL is really getting
    • by holmstar (1388267)
      To be fair, if you RTFA, you'll see a diagram showing the various measurements they had made. I've not counted them, but it appears to be several dozen different "spots" rather than the two that you suggested.
      • by PvtVoid (1252388)

        To be fair, if you RTFA, you'll see a diagram showing the various measurements they had made. I've not counted them, but it appears to be several dozen different "spots" rather than the two that you suggested.

        Yes, very true. And they do discuss possible systematics in some detail. But most of the significance of their "dipole" looks like it comes from a very small fraction of the data. Sure, you can fit the data to a dipole and calculate a statistical significance, but does that fit really mean anything? The reasonable conclusion from comparing the Keck and VLT data is that the method, for whatever reason, is a lot less reliable than they are assuming it is. The four-sigma significance quoted is really hard to t

    • by radtea (464814)

      Please call me when they look at the same spot with two different telescopes, and different spots with the same telescope. Using the same spectral lines.

      They've done that. There are a handful of objects that are common across the two datasets. Unfortunately there is a certain amount of hand-waving in their analysis, pointing out that in one case they were able to show mis-calibration between the two datasets, and naively including this "miscalibrated" point in the overall analysis reduced the significance of the final result a lot (2 sigma or so).

      Their Figure 2 shows the "dipole" distribution but they have relatively few objects at high angles, so the res

  • Maybe one day we'll be able to travel to the far reaches of the universe to a location where the laws of physics allow life to suck less.
  • Maybe the two anomalies mentioned are just bugs in the software running the matrix...
  • by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @12:41PM (#37936496)

    The article suggests that the change is over time not space.

    The real significance is that it would be the first law of physics, aside from entropy that has an arrow of time on it. (And most assume entropy is somehow an artifact of other laws of physics.) Maybe we can reverse this function, so instead of the fine structure constant being a function of time, time is a function of the value of the fine structure constant and its weakening increases the universes entropy.

    INAP, but it seems like maybe a decrease in the fine structure constant would increase the tendency of particles to emit and absorb electrons, and therefore make the universe more chaotic over time.

    • Observation in quantum mechanics isn't symmetric on time either. It tends to be ignored, because we have no good definition for it, but it exists, is central to one of the most important theories of physics, and is assymmetric.

      It's also badly defined, what is worth repeating, because it is simply incredible for a concept that is central to one of the most important theories of physics...

  • So, a few weeks ago we heard that light travels a little bit slower than the fastest objects we've measured. This week we hear that in galaxies far, far away, either the electric charge is larger, Plank's constant is smaller or the speed of light is smaller. If it's the speed of light that's smaller, the required slow-down is of the same order of magnitude as the factor by which photons are slower than neutrinos as observed by OPERA.

    Here's my take. There's a field of undetected particles (dark matter?) t

  • The universe isn't fine-tuned for life. It is fine-tuned for me.

"Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberrys!" -- Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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