Thursday, September 9, 2010

Does the Fine-Structure Constant Vary Across Space ?

UPDATE: Sept. 9, 2010 - 12 noon - Harvard Ex-Professor Lubos Motl takes a contrarian view of what you are about to read. Click here to read it. We posted at the same time, heh.

Does "alpha," The Fine-Structure Constant, which is generally considered to be one of the most solid and therefore one of the most fundamental of Universal Constants, vary across space (if not across time, as has been proven to high accuracy)?

In this article, Australian Physicist John Webb thinks so. If so, I'd say that's really great news, because it's big news, and will hopefully push the silliness over Hawking's latest book off the front pages.

Wikipedia has already updated its entry on the constant by adding this paragraph:

In September 2010 researchers from Australia said they had identified a dipole-like structure in the fine structure constant across the observable universe. According to studies on quasars using the Very Large Telescope, the fine structure constant appears to have been larger by one part in 100,000 in the southern direction, 10 billion years ago. Similarly, the constant appeared to have been smaller by a similar fraction in the northern direction, billions of years ago. [32]

I have always liked this comment by Richard Feynman about it:

There is a most profound and beautiful question associated with the observed coupling constant, the amplitude for a real electron to emit or absorb a real photon. It is a simple number that has been experimentally determined to be close to 0.08542455. (My physicist friends won't recognize this number, because they like to remember it as the inverse of its square: about 137.03597 with about an uncertainty of about 2 in the last decimal place. It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.)

Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the "hand of God" wrote that number, and "we don't know how He pushed his pencil." We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don't know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!

Richard P. Feynman (1985). QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton University Press. p. 129. ISBN 0691083886

Here's what the Very Large Telescope looks like:
The VLT in northern Chile, and yeah I know what you're thinking ... it looks so gorgeous you want to work and live there. Me too, but our family is tied to Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ, for the time being.

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