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Fine-Structure Constant Maybe Not So Constant

samzenpus posted about 4 years ago | from the variety-is-the-spice-of-life dept.

Australia 105

Kilrah_il writes "The fine-structure constant, a coupling constant characterizing the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, has been measured lately by scientists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and has been found to change slightly in light sent from quasars in galaxies as far back as 12 billion years ago. Although the results look promising, caution is advised: 'This would be sensational if it were real, but I'm still not completely convinced that it's not simply systematic errors' in the data, comments cosmologist Max Tegmark of MIT. Craig Hogan of the University of Chicago and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., acknowledges that 'it's a competent team and a thorough analysis.' But because the work has such profound implications for physics and requires such a high level of precision measurements, 'it needs more proof before we'll believe it.'"

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first constant post (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484140)

we need more research to tell if this is first or not.

Re:first constant post (2, Insightful)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | about 4 years ago | (#33484166)

this should get at least a +1 funny (:

Re:first constant post (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484232)

Fucking niggers. They laugh at anything don't they? this should get at least a -1 nigger (:

Re:first constant post (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484174)

Slashdot is old.... you know.

Re:first constant post (1)

Sulphur (1548251) | about 4 years ago | (#33484290)

Has its fine structure constant changed?

Re:first constant post (5, Funny)

AnonymousClown (1788472) | about 4 years ago | (#33484178)

we need more research to tell if this is first or not.

I am unable to reproduce your results.

Re:first constant post (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484192)

I am unable to reproduce your results.

It worked for me; my post is also first.

Re:first constant post (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487246)

Please be advised peer reviewing does not apply for anonymous submitions.

Re:first constant post (1)

marcello_dl (667940) | about 4 years ago | (#33486756)

I am unable to reproduce your results.

This is slashdot: reproduction never happens.

Re:first constant post (1)

jonadab (583620) | about 4 years ago | (#33503632)

> I am unable to reproduce your results.

Well, obviously. He didn't most any detailed methodology, or even any information about what controls he u sed. How is anybody supposed to set up an identical experiment in another lab?

Re:first constant post (1)

ultranova (717540) | about 4 years ago | (#33489362)

we need more research to tell if this is first or not.

But rest assured, creationists/ID proponents don't need any more research to declare this as proof that carbon dating is incorrect. Which, shockingly enough, might actually be true, since the strength of fundamental forces define the rate of radioactive decay, and which nuclei are stable in the first place.

Either way, I predict that Fundies Say the Darndest Things [fstdt.net] will have a flood of new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot -forthy quotes in short order.

BTW. Your comment is not the first. According to the HTML, it's 33,484,140th. So there :p

Correct for doppler and red shift? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 4 years ago | (#33484210)

By comparing the light absorbed by the atoms in the gas clouds with the light absorbed by the same species of atoms on Earth, researchers can attempt to calculate the value of the fine-structure constant at different distances and times in the universe.

The article doesn't say how they correct for radial movement (relative to us) in the gas clouds. A cloud experiencing time dilation should absorb different wavelengths of light.

Re:Correct for doppler and red shift? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484330)

My understanding is that they measure a set of absorption lines, which if coming from the same source would all be redshifted by a single factor, allowing alpha to be determined from the ratios of wavelengths.

Re:Correct for doppler and red shift? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484494)

The article doesn't say how they correct for radial movement (relative to us) in the gas clouds. A cloud experiencing time dilation should absorb different wavelengths of light.

relativistic movement (compared to us on earth) doesn't effect spectra absorption or emission lines .

Re:Correct for doppler and red shift? (1)

waives (1257650) | about 4 years ago | (#33485082)

it most certainly does

Don't Hold Your Breath (4, Insightful)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33484216)

This isn't the first time that some team has claimed this. Around 2000, someone made the same claim. I recall it not standing up when other teams checked it.

Measurements like this have been done before and usually show a constant, er, constant to within experimental uncertainty.

Note, for example, this paragraph buried at the end of the article:

Nonetheless, the study “is as speculative as the previous claims,” asserts Patrick Petitjean of the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, whose team has looked for variations in the fine-structure constant with the Very Large Telescope as far back as about 11.5 billion years ago and found none (SN: 4/8/04, p. 301).

In other words, I wouldn't get excited at all yet.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

jandoedel (1149947) | about 4 years ago | (#33484266)

"whose team has looked for variations in the fine-structure constant with the Very Large Telescope as far back as about 11.5 billion years ago and found none"

WTF? These dudes were already alive 11.5 billion years ago??

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484476)

The farther out you look with a telescope, the farther back in time you're seeing.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484694)

the farther you look up, the farther you can see things going over your head

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487180)

the farther you look up, the farther you can see things going over your head

Or then the joke was just so bad, that no matter how far back in time you look, you'll never see a time when it would have been funny.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487586)

the farther you look up, the farther you can see things going over your head

Or then the joke was just so bad, that no matter how far back in time you look, you'll never see a time when it would have been funny.

But since the universe exists for a finite time only, it's undecidable if the joke is never funny or if it would have been funny in some time before the big bang.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486508)

Under the assumption that light speed is limited and positive.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | about 4 years ago | (#33484272)

In other words, I wouldn't get excited at all yet.

I'm not sure what to get excited about anyway. It's interesting, but the article didn't go into detail about how much this varies and how much this really changes the current understanding of the history of the universe. So far, it's just given imaginary legs to at least one denier of some kind in a response on the Science News web site.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (2, Informative)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33484294)

If it varied at all, the result would be significant just on principle. It would mean that the laws of physics have varied in time, which is not something that most current models allow for. (At least, not that I've heard. I work on something a little closer to home, so I might have missed something.)

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

BungaDunga (801391) | about 4 years ago | (#33485306)

I thought the anomaly described varied in space, rather than time? That is, things further away in one direction had a greater alpha, but ones in the other direction had a lesser alpha.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33485482)

Farther away = farther back in time due to the finite speed of light.

The size of the change seems to vary in space, but they're talking about a time variation in alpha as a function of time.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

BungaDunga (801391) | about 4 years ago | (#33485552)

Yeah, I know how (cosmologically speaking) distance = time, I just meant that they're saying alpha varies in space as well. From the article:
"Along one direction the fine-structure constant, which governs the strength of the electromagnetic force, grows slightly weaker with time, while in the other direction it grows slightly stronger. " ... which seems to suggest that the entire universe has some sort of axis along which alpha changes.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33485712)

Yes, that's what I said:

The size of the change seems to vary in space, but they're talking about a time variation in alpha as a function of time.

We're in agreement.

(What's even more concerning about this result is that if I read it right, stuff ~12 billion years ago had notably different alphas in the two directions. But at that time, the universe would have been much smaller, so those parts of the universe would have been closer together. That doesn't make it seem any more palatable.)

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | about 4 years ago | (#33488682)

Yes, the title of the paper reads:
"Evidence for spatial variation of the fine structure constant"
and the abstract contains:
"We previously reported observations of quasar spectra from the Keck telescope suggesting a smaller value of the fine structure constant, alpha, at high redshift. A new sample of 153 measurements from the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), probing a different direction in the universe, also depends on redshift, but in the opposite sense, that is, alpha appears on average to be larger in the past."

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Artifakt (700173) | about 4 years ago | (#33486216)

The standard model doesn't, but then the standard model doesn't predict what the fine structure constant has to be by any of the fundamental assumptions. The standard model says in effect "measure the damned fine structure constant and take it as measured, but don't expect to know why the universe is that way." Some string theories (and if I recall correctly, some brane theories) predict a specific value for alpha and some other constants that are just arbitrary by the standard model, but the trouble is, they don't all include the same constants. Both the Weak and Strong Anthropic Principles gain any meaning they may have, in large part, because life as we know it requires a very precise range of values for a few of these arbitrary seeming constants.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (5, Informative)

Zocalo (252965) | about 4 years ago | (#33484342)

The fine structure constant is given as being equal to "e^2/hc", so if the FSC is not a constant then one (or more) of the other values must also be a variable. Take your pick between:

If any of those constants turned out to in fact be variable, or even a "constant" which has varied over the lifetime of the universe, then the implications would be profound to say the least.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (4, Funny)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 4 years ago | (#33484554)

The fine structure constant is given as being equal to "e^2/hc", so if the FSC is not a constant then one (or more) of the other values must also be a variable.

Or maybe the "2" is changing?

Not mathematically, but 1.999--> 2.001 or such.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

shadowofwind (1209890) | about 4 years ago | (#33484636)

Well, according to some guys on here last month, pi is dependent on physics, because 2*pi*r is the circumference of an Euclidean circle. But I see that there's a 2 in that expression also, so why not?

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33484870)

Units wouldn't work then, though. I don't think you can change that exponent without doing something to at least one other term.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

suomynonAyletamitlU (1618513) | about 4 years ago | (#33485212)

Or maybe the "2" is changing?

Not mathematically, but (...)

Not mathematically, but linguistically. In the time before time, 2 was actually known by its true name, potato. It's only lately we humans who have screwed that up.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (2, Funny)

symbolset (646467) | about 4 years ago | (#33485434)

Wait, there's also the operators "^" and "/" to consider. Maybe those are the variables.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Decker-Mage (782424) | about 4 years ago | (#33486918)

Funny? Actually, perhaps real. Operators are functions that map the operands to a result. If the mapping changes over time, the mapping may be non-constant with constant operands. Something to ponder when you have time ;-).

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487356)

That's just like God changing his mind at some point along the way when designing the rules of this universe.

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486920)

If C++ can overload operators, why couldn't Nature?

Re: Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487288)

Well, just calculate on AMD and on INTEL. If both deliver the same, it's not changing...

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

BitterOak (537666) | about 4 years ago | (#33484848)

The fine structure constant is given as being equal to "e^2/hc", so if the FSC is not a constant then one (or more) of the other values must also be a variable. Take your pick between:

If any of those constants turned out to in fact be variable, or even a "constant" which has varied over the lifetime of the universe, then the implications would be profound to say the least.

Actually, it is possible to work in fundamental units in which hbar = c = 1, so the latter two can be considered constant by definition.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

fredmeister (1159859) | about 4 years ago | (#33485094)

I thought that the fine-structure constant was dimensionless, so it always has a value of approxmiately 1/137. Does that mean in natural units (h=c=G=1), e must be the square root of 1/137?

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33485390)

man you are so prodigious in math

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (3, Informative)

Idarubicin (579475) | about 4 years ago | (#33485728)

Actually, it is possible to work in fundamental units in which hbar = c = 1, so the latter two can be considered constant by definition.

Oh, so close -- you just needed to look up one more Wikipedia article to get a hint about why your reasoning is faulty. There are indeed systems of so-called natural units [wikipedia.org] which assign a constant value of 1 to certain physical units. Yes, there are systems which define c and h-bar as 1, but there are also systems which define e to be exactly 1.

Inconveniently, merely asserting a definition doesn't actually compel obedience on the part of the Universe. If I work in Stoney units [wikipedia.org] , then I define e and c to be constant, so h-bar must be changing if the fine structure constant changes. In Schrodinger units, e and h-bar are constants, and c must be changing. The natural-unit systems only work properly if the assumption of constancy of their chosen fundamental constants is correct.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

BitterOak (537666) | about 4 years ago | (#33490658)

Inconveniently, merely asserting a definition doesn't actually compel obedience on the part of the Universe.

As long as your definitions are consistent, though, you are not requiring the universe to obey anything. Take the speed of light for example. What does it mean to say that the speed of light is constant? It means that the distance covered by light in a specified unit of time will be constant. But if we define our unit of length to be the distance traveled by light in one second, then it will always be constant. My point is that two of the three quantities in the fine structure constant are arbitrary, and the third is determined by experiment.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33485750)

Actually, it is possible to work in fundamental units in which hbar = c = 1, so the latter two can be considered constant by definition.

That is true until you have reason to suspect that one of the physical "constants" of the universe has some dependency on time. Historically, c has always been the one suspected so don't try to double check with Planck units.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

khallow (566160) | about 4 years ago | (#33485892)

That is true until you have reason to suspect that one of the physical "constants" of the universe has some dependency on time.

It is true, period. There's room for rescaling in the theory. So if the fine structure constant isn't constant, then you can rescale the theory so that one of the three "constants" (and it doesn't matter which one) isn't.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33485014)

This would also mean we've been 'getting away with a few things' with regard to our technology up till now. Granted they have fallen within such a small room for variance that we have yet to reach the precision point in technology where our understanding of physics must improve before the technology can progress.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

kayumi (763841) | about 4 years ago | (#33485016)

I'd say it is pretty obvious. Hasn't your experience with
Laptops told you anything? The older the electron gets the
lower its charge. Once we get all the current electrons
replaced by new iElectrons (TM) all should be well again.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | about 4 years ago | (#33485936)

Steve Jobs is gonna be cross with you.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Black Gold Alchemist (1747136) | about 4 years ago | (#33486424)

...the implications would be profound to say the least.

Like free energy. If E=MC^2, then by converting matter and energy back and forth while C changes can lead to more than you started with. Of course, the theory that leads to E=MC^2 are based on the idea that C is constant, and break down if C starts changing. If the elementary charge changes, you could charge batteries while e was small, then discharge them while e was high. This would lead to more energy out then in. If the plank constant changed, well I'm too tiered to think about it now, but I'm sure there's some scheme in which atoms are bombarded with photons, raised into a higher energy state, planks constant changed, and them allowed to radiate. This would lead to more energy out than in. The universe blue screens if constants aren't constant.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

dumuzi (1497471) | about 4 years ago | (#33489610)

INAEB (I'm not an expert, but...) Your battery discharged while e is high may discharge more energy (shiver at the thought), but can you actually do more with that energy? If that battery is in a flashlight it now has to work against a higher e value to emit photons, in the end you may well end up emitting the same number of photons with the same wavelength, resulting in the same net change in entropy as if you had used your batteries while e was still small.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Black Gold Alchemist (1747136) | about 4 years ago | (#33489766)

Spin up a flywheel. Lift up a bucket of water. Drive a car up a mountain, and let it cost back down later.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Dread_ed (260158) | about 4 years ago | (#33488572)

I seem to remember various and sundry stories at many times over the last 20 years in respectable science journals and online publications speculating that the speed of light has changed at times during the unfolding of our universe.

If I remember correctly some postulated a "phase change" analogy, others spoke about the curvature of space, and still others about the density of matter, and I seem to remember some mentioning other fundamental constants fluctuating as well. Please feel free to comment about how this might be proved or disproved as I am at once woefully under-educated in this area of science and yet terribly, terribly curious.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

InfiniteWisdom (530090) | about 4 years ago | (#33491652)

The fine structure constant is given as being equal to "e^2/hc", so if the FSC is not a constant then one (or more) of the other values must also be a variable.

That does not follow. I don't know enough about the fine-structure constant to talk about the specifics here, but another possibility is that the theory (and equations) where the constant is used is incorrect and there should be some other expression there, not a constant.

I'm not disputing that it could still be a very significant result, but it doesn't necessarily follow that e, h or c are variable.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

buchner.johannes (1139593) | about 4 years ago | (#33484604)

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.

http://www.the-economist.com/node/16930866 [the-economist.com] (someone linked it below)

They did their stats homework. Sure it needs verification, but I am also not surprised other institutes downplay what wasn't their finding.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33484854)

Sure it needs verification, but I am also not surprised other institutes downplay what wasn't their finding.

That's the problem, there are other tests out there and they don't show the effect. This isn't some new measurement, it's an old measurement (perhaps done better, perhaps not) that is showing a previously unseen behavior.

Also, yes, it's true that other groups are liable to downplay the finding (although that happens less than you might think, speaking as an astronomer myself), but the team themselves do the opposite. Why believe one is biased and the other isn't?

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 4 years ago | (#33485364)

This isn't the first time that some team has claimed this. Around 2000, someone made the same claim. I recall it not standing up when other teams checked it.

Check out the Economist article, it's better. The difference there was that the telescopes were in different hemispheres. They thought previously that they were measuring a variation back in time (and the follow-up study in the southern hemisphere showed no such measurement back in time when they looked), but it turns out that they're measuring a variation over location in space. The new results trace a smooth gradient of alpha over something like an 18-billion-light-year arc.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33485470)

Right, but other groups haven't found any variation in time or in space. It's possible that they looked in exactly the wrong directions, I suppose, but that's kind of unlikely.

I'm not saying that this result is wrong. I'm just saying it squares badly with other measurements and it's more likely at this point that something is else confusing the result, either experimental error or some other effect.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 4 years ago | (#33488614)

Right, but other groups haven't found any variation in time or in space. It's possible that they looked in exactly the wrong directions, I suppose, but that's kind of unlikely.

Indeed, but that's the suggestion of the article.

I'm not saying that this result is wrong. I'm just saying it squares badly with other measurements and it's more likely at this point that something is else confusing the result, either experimental error or some other effect.

They're saying now that they have multiple observations of a half-dozen quasars on different telescopes and have calibrated the error between them.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33489378)

Right, but other groups haven't found any variation in time or in space. It's possible that they looked in exactly the wrong directions, I suppose, but that's kind of unlikely.

Indeed, but that's the suggestion of the article.

Fair enough (and it may be true), but it's not reasonable to expect people to readily believe the result if that's their explanation. Low probability things happen all the time, but we shouldn't be expected to run out and believe them right away. Which is pretty much all I'm saying when I suggest skepticism.

They're saying now that they have multiple observations of a half-dozen quasars on different telescopes and have calibrated the error between them.

Having now looked at (but not carefully read) the paper, it also looks like their signal is pretty erratic. Measurements in the same part of the sky given very different results. It looks like they've teased out trends statistically, but even if I want to believe the trends, that points to a very large random error in their data. It's an interesting result, but again: I recommend a strong dose of skepticism.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 4 years ago | (#33496672)

Measurements in the same part of the sky given very different results. It looks like they've teased out trends statistically

Ah, interesting. I hate to disbelieve well-done statistics, but perhaps they can work on getting the noise out of their sensing. Thanks.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33496736)

Stats are an interesting thing in science, especially in physics and astronomy. We're all trained in a few stats, but after those ones, the more you do the less many of us trust your result. Part of it is that those fields generally don't need a lot of statistical teasing to produce clear results and part of it is unfamiliarity, but another big chunk is the soft nature of statistics: a given stat is rigorous, but which ones give you the best information is kind of hard to say so you can go shopping around for a stat that supports your own conclusion until you find one, often.

Some of that objection is clearly simply cultural, some of it is, I think, legitimate concern.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 4 years ago | (#33507936)

I appreciate the problem. Even some of physics itself can be statistical in nature, and certainly various sensing gear used in experiments uses statistical filters to screen out noise. Yet, it seems like we only accept statistical models if we're pretty sure they're true. It would be lovely if we had rigorous methods to accept or discard statistical conclusions based on the math itself. As you quite correctly point out, all too commonly we're left wondering if the statistics are correct, misleading, or out-right lying. We've certainly seen results with 'strong' statistics turn out to be flat-wrong. Each one of those further increases the distrust.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

Artifakt (700173) | about 4 years ago | (#33486170)

That earlier team would be at the University of New South Wales under John Webb in 1999.

It is interesting however, that Cosmologists/Astrophysicists seem to be far from universal agreement on one point:

What else would have to vary if Alpha (the Fine structure constant) varies.

Alpha can be described in terms of other physical constants, via any of three equations that each use some of these values:

          e = the elementary charge;
            = h/2, the reduced Planck constant;
          c = the speed of light (in vacuum, of course);
and either
          0 = the electric constant or permittivity of free space;
or
        0 = the magnetic constant or permeability of free space;
or
            ke = the Coulomb constant.
So one of these at least would have to vary as well in each equation.
          What surprised me is there seems to be very little agreement which of these other constants would be most likely to actually be variable. It seems obvious that if the electric constant actually varies, the magnetic constant does as well, because of the normal coupling of electromagnetism, but that would mean the coulomb constant would be the variable in the third equation, and so ke doesn't always equal 1. Except, there's a lot of convenience for fundamental physics in setting everything so the Coulomb constant always becomes 1. The statcoulomb is defined as it is simply to make ke come out to 1.
          Alternately, all three equations contain c, so that suggests the simplest assumption might be that c varies.
          Change the Coulomb constant from unity, and physics loses some cancelation tricks, and a lot of related equations gain some complicated, messy extra terms that make them feel less elegant. Change c and the same thing happens, plus the popular press siezes on this with "Was Einstein Wrong?" headlines. Either case would take a physicist with impeccable credentials doing very solid work before the community would take it seriously.

Re:Don't Hold Your Breath (1)

ZeRu (1486391) | about 4 years ago | (#33490728)

Indeed, this is not news. My particle physics professor mentioned it in 1998, though I still don't understand how a constant can change, and more importantly, why it does..

QED (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484250)

I love wikipedia:
 
  The theory of QED
 
I never thought logical proof of something could be a theory until now...

Re:QED (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486098)

All of science is theory, even logical proofs.

Re:QED (2, Informative)

Artifakt (700173) | about 4 years ago | (#33486238)

Quantum Electro-Dynamics, not Quod Est Demonstratum.

Re:QED (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486638)

quod erat demonstrandum

A link to the paper itself (3, Informative)

nyri (132206) | about 4 years ago | (#33484282)

Evidence for spatial variation of the fine structure constant [arxiv.org]

An evaluation from a practicing physicist would be appreciated.

Re:A link to the paper itself (1, Redundant)

Americium (1343605) | about 4 years ago | (#33484338)

The summary's point was the even if the paper is correct, there may be systematic errors in the data. I.E., these guys downloaded the data from the telescope repositories, this data might have errors.

Re:A link to the paper itself (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484504)

Let's just say that if called upon to review this paper I would have a lot of comments on techniques and assumptions. They are also sending it to a journal where it is likely they will find reviewers who don't understand the details of the instruments used.

I'm not saying its definitely wrong, but it definitely needs a peer review cycle or two before publication. If published in this form, the editor will get some "feedback" on the editorial process. Longer term, I and a lot of other people would like to see confirmation from independent groups using independent instrumentation before we put too much effort into explaining an effect that might not exist.

Posting anonymously so I won't be excluded from the review pool for having opinions.

Re:A link to the paper itself (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487354)

Posting anonymously so I won't be excluded from the review pool for having opinions.

As if we don't already know all about your so called "opinions"... But don't worry, you weren't in the real pool to begin with, so nothing lost.

Re:A link to the paper itself (3, Interesting)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33485532)

Wow. Check out Figure 5. It's hard to believe there's any systematic signal in their data, they have blue and red points mixed up all over the sky. They claim there's an excess of one color in one hemisphere and the other color in the other hemisphere, but it's not very strong signal at all. This isn't my field (I work on Saturn's rings), but my first reaction is amazement that this is serious enough to be talking to the press about.

(I'm also more than a little put off by the fact that this hasn't been accepted, evidently, merely submitted to a journal. And not even an astrophysical journal like AJ or ApJ which seem like a far better fit for this subject matter and the audience.)

Re:A link to the paper itself (3, Funny)

Inthewire (521207) | about 4 years ago | (#33485914)

They seem to be in good shape. Thank you for your efforts.

Re:A link to the paper itself (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486360)

That's also one hell of a commute.

Re: A link to the paper itself (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 4 years ago | (#33486722)

I work on Saturn's rings

Wow - cool place to work!

Re: A link to the paper itself (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33489336)

Commute is a bitch, though.

Re:A link to the paper itself (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33486832)

Figure 5 is a "supplementary figure" and so is often meant to be more pretty than informative. Also, the paper is suggesting a variation in the fine-structure constant over SPACE, not TIME, which TFA (and TFS) fails to make clear.

Re:A link to the paper itself (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33489582)

The abstract:

We previously reported observations of quasar spectra from the Keck telescope suggesting a smaller value of the fine structure constant, , at high redshift. A new sample of 153 measurements from the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), probing a different direction in the universe, also depends on redshift, but in the opposite sense, that is, appears on average to be larger in the past.

It's suggesting alpha varies in both senses. The farther away (farther back in time) they look, the bigger change. The sign of the change changes in space.

And I disagree about your interpretation of what a supplemental figure is. It's simply a figure you didn't have room for, often showing your data set more completely than space allowed. If anything, they're generally less pretty than the real figures. If anything, they're often less designed to lead the reader to the authors' conclusion.

Re:A link to the paper itself (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487038)

Wow. Check out Figure 5. It's hard to believe there's any systematic signal in their data, they have blue and red points mixed up all over the sky. They claim there's an excess of one color in one hemisphere and the other color in the other hemisphere, but it's not very strong signal at all. This isn't my field (I work on Saturn's rings), but my first reaction is amazement that this is serious enough to be talking to the press about.

(I'm also more than a little put off by the fact that this hasn't been accepted, evidently, merely submitted to a journal. And not even an astrophysical journal like AJ or ApJ which seem like a far better fit for this subject matter and the audience.)

Look at Fig 5 and squint: I saw patterns straight away.

Also, from TFA:

The researchers calculate that there is less than a 1% chance such an effect could arise at random.

Of course, 1% is still too close to random to claim that alpha is variable in space - but the data is far from random.

Re:A link to the paper itself (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | about 4 years ago | (#33489426)

Look at Fig 5 and squint: I saw patterns straight away.

Good for you. I still don't really see a compelling trend. They have blue and red points side-by-side (virtually on top of each other). That's not promising for their claim.

The researchers calculate that there is less than a 1% chance such an effect could arise at random.

Sure, but just because they calculate something doesn't make it so. Statistics are a dark art and can easily be screwed up. If you assume the wrong error characteristics in your measurements, for example, you can quickly conclude you know more than you do. Without reviewing their calculation (and no one has yet, it appears, as this hasn't been reviewed yet), it's hard to say how confident to be in that statistic.

Re:A link to the paper itself (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33496714)

Statistics are a dark art and can easily be screwed up.

Sorry, but that was before the era of GLOBAL WARMING WILL KILL YOUR KITTEHS. Now statistics means doing some math you don't really understand as long as you can get your political message out. If those pesky "professional statisticians" dare to say anything you just have to call them out on not working "in your field".

Thus, anyone who works with astrolomonogoically stuff can safely ignore "statistics".

Re:A link to the paper itself (1)

js_sebastian (946118) | about 4 years ago | (#33487088)

This isn't my field (I work on Saturn's rings),

Do you have a long commute? How is traffic out there?

Re:A link to the paper itself (1)

Chalnoth (1334923) | about 4 years ago | (#33487540)

A reasonable evaluation was already pointed out in the summary to the article, by Max Tegmark, who is a practicing physicist, and who pointed out that he would need more evidence to be convinced it's not just systematic errors. I would personally go even further and say it's almost certainly systematic errors. Just looking at the abstract makes this patently clear, as they find the opposite effect claimed in previous studies. They claim large statistical significance, of course, but when your result changes so dramatically from previous results, well, that sounds more like they're not properly estimating their errors.

Re:A link to the paper itself (1)

mrsquid0 (1335303) | about 4 years ago | (#33516148)

The paper does not do a great job of addressing potential systematic errors. What concerns me is that the dipole that they claim to find aligns with the direction of the Great Attractor. This makes me think that there may be a subtle systematic effect in the radial velocity measurements.

What exactly is varying? (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33484426)

IIRC alpha is defined as a function of several thought-to-be-constants. So if this is true, then one or more of those must be changing as well.

Does the experiment provide any insight as to which of the constants which make up alpha is changing?

Re:What exactly is varying? (2, Interesting)

mburns (246458) | about 4 years ago | (#33485676)

Writing as an outside critic of academic physics, I am still very appreciative of the old paper by Max Planck on the constants of physics. The paper is a prime part of relativity theory (the theory of invariants as it is better termed).

The speed of light, the Planck constant, the gravitational constant, the magnetic constant, and the Boltzmann constant serve to define units of measurement. So any variation of those constants only reduces to some weird physical observation that is correctable by fixing the calibration, not to a provable variation of the constants.

If the charge of the electron changes, then you have nonconservation or nonlocal transfer of charges to deal with. These alternatives are mathematically intractable; the Bianchi identities that apply to conservation are very hard to dispose of.

Repeating ourselves are we (2, Informative)

Gruturo (141223) | about 4 years ago | (#33484906)

Ok, I guess 9 years is acceptable for a dupe [slashdot.org] , and tbh I didn't even read the article, in /.'s finest tradition, so it might be an actual new development :-)

Kinda sure there was some piece of news on the subject from around 2005-2006 too, but can't find it atm. Meh, google-fu weak at 3am, should sleep, work in under 5 hours.

Re:Repeating ourselves are we (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | about 4 years ago | (#33485976)

I just skimmed both articles. It seems like they have submitted new data and analysis from the same long-running study. We'll need further analysis and a peer review cycle to be sure whether or not it qualifies as an actual dupe.

Re:Repeating ourselves are we (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33487968)

It's not a dupe. I've spoken to one of the actual researchers in the last couple of months.

Re:Repeating ourselves are we (1)

Danny Rathjens (8471) | about 4 years ago | (#33488480)

I think my story submission posted two hours before this one made the difference a lot clearer that the evidence points to a variation over space now, and not just time. (yes, I'm annoyed at being rejected, hah - and we had to waste several +5 informative to get the info I included in my summary like the arxiv link). It took an annoying amount of effort to track down the actual paper, too. I first read the story in 3quarksdaily.com [3quarksdaily.com] linking to the Economist story, then found the researcher's UNSW site which linked to an older article at physicsworld which finally brought me to the newer story and an actual arxiv link.)

Danny Rathjens writes "The Economist [economist.com] cutely writes, "Ye cannae change the laws of physics Or can you?" There was already evidence that the fine structure constant -- a measure of the strength of electromagnetic interaction -- became slightly smaller going back billions of years based on observations of light from quasars. Staggering newer observations provided evidence that the value going back in time actually became larger! The crucial difference being that the new observations were take from a telescope in the other hemisphere and so pointing to a different part of the universe. That indicates that the fine structure constant not only changed over time but it also varies based on position in space! physicsworld.com [physicsworld.com] points out some fascinating implications of this observation. The pre-print of the article submitted to PRL is available at arxiv.org [arxiv.org] ."

Why Is It? (1)

DynaSoar (714234) | about 4 years ago | (#33486994)

How come all these semi-science articles have to quote someone else saying 'needs more proof' etc.? The primary researchers almost invariably say the same themselves. Is the science not worth wasting the ink if it can't be made to appear as if it's an argument? Being skeptical yourself is good. Someone else being skeptical is trivial. It's one thing to interview someone else if they have something to add, but to do it just to hang a name on the preplanned 'controversial' portion is st00pid to the point of insulting to bother interviewee and reader. As for the 'science' 'writers', most obviously aren't very good at either.

Re:Why Is It? (1)

JasterBobaMereel (1102861) | about 4 years ago | (#33487704)

Researchers need to publish ....

This means they have published, and it's got quoted, and it will be referenced in other articles, this means they get paid and can continue their research ..If it is found to be true or not is not important .... But if it is then they can publish that as well ....

Re:Why Is It? (1)

sam_handelman (519767) | about 4 years ago | (#33488656)

Whether it's true or not is, of course, important - both to society at large and for the (longer term) viability of the careers of the scientists in question - but can scientists publish and have careers, even if they are wrong?

  Absolutely, and they *should* be able to do so. If anything, the current system over-emphasizes being right over doing the important experiments which are absolutely requisite to scientific progress; even if the results come out inconclusive, you have to try different things.

  If you have to be right in order to publish and in order to perservere with the endeavor, science becomes impossible.

  Note that I'm impugning a lot into the parent comment, and I apologize if I read more hostility into it than was intended.

Mod parent up. (1)

John Hasler (414242) | about 4 years ago | (#33493558)

n/t

In other news (2, Funny)

sam_handelman (519767) | about 4 years ago | (#33488622)

Duplicate joke for a duplicate claim:

Planck's constant (h) increased in value this morning to roughly 50 joule-seconds, sending the DJIA to a 95% confidence interval between 0 and 15,000, and increasing the wavelength of a penny moving at a brisk walk to a value on the order of it's own diameter, so that macroscopic, every day objects behave as waves instead of billiard balls. Tennis players in central park (whose velocity could not be determined as of this printing) may have been alarmed to find tennis balls which hit their rackets were defracted and created interference patterns on the fence behind, instead of going into the opposing court.

Spatial Variation, not just Time Variation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#33497536)

Just to clarify. These new results suggest that data from quasar absorption lines is also consistent with spatial variation of the fine structure constant. This was the same group that analysed data from Keck a few years back to show possible evidence for time variation. Since then, and rather before, a number of other groups (like me) have been looking for similar evidence in other systems: the Oklo natural reactors, atomic clock comparisons, optical frequency comparisons, .... Intending to confirms these results, and to start to consider possible systematic errors, the group at NSW did the same analysis on data from a second telescope in the southern hemisphere. The initial analysis was inconsistent with the original Keck results, but by also accounting for the position of the sources in the sky, all the data was found to be consistent with spatial variations. Each telescopes data set individually suggests a dipole variation with an axis along about the same line. Together there is a few sigma effect. Time variation is also still possible but the statistics are not yet good enough to see the distinction.

There is still the possibility of a tragic conspiracy of systematic errors. As is stands this provides a good explanation of why laboratory experiments have so far been unable to detect time variation of \alpha at the same level as the original Quasar data. If the variation is real annual variations should be detectable due to the movement of the earth around the sun at a part in 10^20, and due to the movement of the sun around the galaxy at a part in 10^18 or 10^19. Current experiments are sensitive to changes of about a part in 10^16.

The implications would be profound. There are plenty of plausible mechanisms for generating such a variation, but none is yet compelling. Hopefully it is not as boring as another scalars field and spontaneous symmetry breaking. Then there is also the business about position invariance being broken at a certain level.

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