Scientists propose a variable law of physics
by Heather Catchpole at Cosmos Online
SYDNEY: The laws of physics in our own part of the universe are geared towards life - but in the rest of the universe things might be very different, forcing a rethink of the way we understand fundamental physical forces, according to Australian and U.K. research.The research, presented at the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting (JENAM 2010) in Lisbon, Portugal, examines the fine structure constant, a measure of the electromagnetic force that binds electrons to their nuclei in atoms.
Classical physics assumes that this constant, called alpha, is just that - constant. But research led by John Webb from the University of New South Wales in Sydney has suggested that this constant varies slightly over time.
Different direction, different constant
Webb and colleagues present surprising and controversial new research in Physical Review Letters, showing that the fine structure constant varies even more depending on which direction of space you look into.
The team used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the twin Keck telescopes in Hawaii to look at the way light from around 300 galaxies roughly 12 billion light years away is absorbed by atoms in interstellar gas clouds between us and the distant galaxies.
The telescopes are in different hemispheres, and so point in opposite directions into space.
Large variations could be possible
Combining the results showed significant changes in the so-called constant, which has profound implications for the laws of physics.
"Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha," explains co-author Julian King, also from the University of New South Wales.
"It varies by only a tiny amount - about one part in 100,000 - over most of the observable universe, but it's possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon."
Not geared towards life elsewhere
Webb believes that there is an axis along which the fine structure constant varies and that while the laws of physics and chemistry are geared towards life in our own part of the universe, elsewhere it could be a very different story.
"The implications for our current understanding of science are profound," says Webb.
"If the laws of physics turn out to be merely 'local by-laws,' it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it."
The devil is in the detail
Astrophysicist Scott Croom from the University of Sydney, who was not involved with the research, says while the research is "world class," he remains to be convinced.
"This is a grand claim and you need exceptional evidence to back up exceptional claims," he says.
Some of the current quantum mechanical physics models do predict a variable fine structure constant, but with this sort of research "the devil is in the detail," he says. [Indeed!]
"This group has a good record in picking out systematic errors. That said, the first look at this sort of dipole effect does ring alarm bells. Do I believe it? On balance, no - most unusual things like this end up being due to unknown systematic errors."
However, he said if confirmed by other research it would be "a fantastic thing."