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Fine Structure Constant May Not Be So Constant

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the pi-is-exactly-three dept.

Science 273

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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Happy November from the Golden Girls! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935540)

Thank you for being a friend
Traveled down the road and back again
Your heart is true, you're a pal and a cosmonaut.

And if you threw a party
Invited everyone you ever knew
You would see the biggest gift would be from me
And the card attached would say, thank you for being a friend.

Re:Happy November from the Golden Girls! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935772)

Really? Cosmonaut?

It's Confidant

Re:Happy November from the Golden Girls! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936050)

Really? This troll has been posted a hundred times and it gets the same response each and every time. Either it's a really, really, good troll, or the Slashdot readership has the IQ of a slug.

I'm siding with the slug.

Okay (4, Funny)

durrr (1316311) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935542)

So rename it the Fine Structure Variable then.

Re:Okay (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935642)

Alpha can be computed in terms of other fundamental constants, in several ways.
So according to the new research, which of those vary, and which don't?
The speed of light? The electron charge? Planck's constant?
If this is right, the implications are huge.

Re:Okay (2, Insightful)

0123456 (636235) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935720)

When I was studying physics at school I measured the gravitational acceleration of a pendulum and it was 10% different to the accepted value.

Of course back then my teacher called me a dumb-ass and told me to do it again rather than plastering the news all over the media.

Re:Okay (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935936)

According to the wikipedia linked in the post above this isn't the first time that it has been questioned whether the fine structure constant is constant

Re:Okay (4, Informative)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935966)

Your point being exactly what? That your half assed undergrad project is analogous to years of research by a professional team? That only research that agrees with the standard view of things should get published?

Do you understand that the point of research and publication is to foster discussion and thinking?

Sounds like your teacher had you pegged.

Re:Okay (4, Insightful)

History's Coming To (1059484) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936078)

Funny example to use though - there are persistent rumours of anomalous behaviour in pendulums (pendula?) during solar eclipses. I don't know how rigorous the "experiments" in question are, my guess is not very, but an odd example to use. The basic point is right though - if your experiment disagrees with current theory then you should really presume you've done something silly until you've eradicated every error you can think or, then you ask for help...in this case, by publishing.

Re:Okay (2)

sexconker (1179573) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936514)

Sounds like your teacher had you pegged.

But he still doesn't know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs.

Can't say which one [Re:Okay] (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936222)

Alpha can be computed in terms of other fundamental constants, in several ways.
So according to the new research, which of those vary, and which don't?
The speed of light? The electron charge? Planck's constant?

you can't say. Those all are things that have units, so you can always define them as "1" in the proper set of units. (The speed of light, for example, is always one light-second per second.)

It's only when you combine them together-- that is, making the ratio of one set of constants to the other-- that you can say that it varies. So, if the fine structure constant is variable, you're saying that e^2 is varying, in units of hc, or equally that hc is varying in units of e^2.

Re:Can't say which one [Re:Okay] (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936422)

you can't say. Those all are things that have units, so you can always define them as "1" in the proper set of units. (The speed of light, for example, is always one light-second per second.)

You can still say, because even if you define your units so that the constant is 1 unit, if the constant changes, so does the size of the unit. You can then compare this size with the "previous" size, and get a meaningful ratio. It will be unitless, but still correctly represent that the constant has changed.

Just because we define a constant as X units doesn't mean our definition of the unit automagically changes if the "constant" does. For example, right now the meter is defined in terms of the speed of light. However, if the speed of light changed tomorrow, and you measured it using instruments calibrated today, then your measured m/s would be different.

Re:Okay (1)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936650)

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

-- "Desmond will be my constant".

Awesome (3, Informative)

demonbug (309515) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935584)

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

Re:Awesome (-1, Troll)

davester666 (731373) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936022)

Well, I always feel refreshed and energetic when I leave your house after banging your mom.

Zones of thought! (5, Interesting)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935586)

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?

Re:Zones of thought! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935698)

It's been 15 years since I read that and it was already on my "to be re-read" list.
It just got bumped to the top of the list :-)

Hexapodia is the key insight (1)

Daetrin (576516) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935796)

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.

Re:Hexapodia is the key insight (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936738)

What, you're not going to make a dummy account called TwirlipOfTheMists?

Re:Zones of thought! (1)

Tapewolf (1639955) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935834)

I believe the sequel is due out later this month.

Re:Zones of thought! (2)

Daetrin (576516) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935996)

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.

Re:Zones of thought! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936084)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_the_Sky

Re:Zones of thought! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935884)

Poul did. In the novel "Brain Wave", he postulated a "field" emanating from the galactic core which tended to slow down electromagnetism "just a touch" and whose major effect was to dampen activity in anything ultra-sensitive enough to notice -- like neurons. When Earth emerged from the field after a long enough time that humans had evolved under its influence, IQs went WAAY up. By the new standards, an IQ of about three hundred would be seen as "moron." Naturally this causes some problems...

Re:Zones of thought! (1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935906)

So in a galaxy far far away, I too can be a JEDI?

Re:Zones of thought! (1)

meerling (1487879) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935958)

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.

Re:Zones of thought! (2)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936092)

Terminal World, by Alastair Reynolds, has a similar premise, but is based on Mars.

Re:Zones of thought! (1)

zugedneb (601299) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936106)

what site was it? tell :)

Re:Zones of thought! (2)

Dragonslicer (991472) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936656)

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.

Re:Zones of thought! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937200)

Poul Aderson's novel "Brain Wave" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_Wave) from 1954 had a similar idea.

Red Shift (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935612)

Gravity Red Shift.

Reproducibility? (5, Interesting)

n5vb (587569) | more than 2 years ago | (#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 ..

Re:Reproducibility? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936066)

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.

Link to preprint (2)

spect (1296895) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936168)

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.

Breaks a lot of dependancies (2)

RapidEye (322253) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935692)

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.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935738)

"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.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1)

MyLongNickName (822545) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935882)

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

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937250)

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

Analogies are like fish. Some of them make no sense.

Even so (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935890)

The model changes when new evidence is found. Yay!

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1)

marcello_dl (667940) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936170)

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 finely tuned conditions had not been met, we wouldn't be here discussing it, maybe some other forms would consider theirs the finely tuned conditions.
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.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (2)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935810)

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.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935962)

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?

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936450)

clearly your species has never learned to build boats. that doesn't mean it is impossible to travel to africa, only that you do not yet know how.

who says we can't travel interstellar distances? we just don't know how yet. we can do a lot of things today that in the past had been viewed as impossible.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936672)

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?

Yes, not because of the measured difference but because of what it may imply.
You can think of it as a program. If you notice an odd behaviour you might figure out how the program solves a specific problem. If you understand how the program works you can manipulate the input to make it behave in a way that is "unnatural".
If something works differently in Africa then we want to know why it works like that and if the behaviour can be reproduced in specific circumstances at Antarctica.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (2)

cavreader (1903280) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936686)

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 destroying itself using the advances we have already put to use.

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (1)

DCFusor (1763438) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936866)

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 why the idea isn't popular (it would also be a fair amount of work to implement).

Re:Breaks a lot of dependancies (5, Insightful)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936968)

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.

A year is not that out of the ordinary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935760)

Going from submission to publication in weeks is really fast for most journals. Several months is a lot closer to normal.

Re:A year is not that out of the ordinary (0)

0123456 (636235) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935774)

Going from submission to publication in weeks is really fast for most journals. Several months is a lot closer to normal.

They're probably thinking of 'climate change' papers.

It sorta makes sense... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935782)

Given that we know that forces were combined at certain energies back near the Big Bang, perhaps certain constants vary with time / energy / other variable here?

Maybe we are in the early habitable zone of the universe.

Of course, this wouldn't make much sense when you consider other factors, such as stars and planets.
Surely there'd be hugely noticeable differences with them as well?
The interactions on stars are hugely magnified, EM especially with solar flares and sunspots.
Or are the changes to alpha so minute that it only affects the ability for much of biology to be as advanced as it is? Such as the theme behind A Fire Upon The Deep mentioned above by CRCulver.

Exciting times in science I tell you, exciting times.

Schrodinger's Quasars? (1)

Muad'Dave (255648) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935786)

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?

Re:Schrodinger's Quasars? (1)

elsurexiste (1758620) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937060)

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

Anthropic principle (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:Anthropic principle (1)

Twinbee (767046) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936546)

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

Re:Anthropic principle (1)

sexconker (1179573) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936680)

"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.

Life is tuned against the universe.
Life is the struggle against entropy.

Re:Anthropic principle (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936698)

Small changes to fundamental constants could result in everything being swallowed in black holes or stars being unable to form. Both make it unlikely that any kind of life could evolve. That life exists suggests a few possibilities.

1. There are only certain values that the physical constants could take, and by extraordinary chance this happens to allow complex life.

2. The constants can vary over space or time, and via the Anthropic Principle we find ourselves in a location that supports life.

3. There may exist many universes, each with different constants. And again, through the Anthripic Principle, we inhabit a universe capable of supporting life.

Re:Anthropic principle (1)

camperdave (969942) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936770)

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.

Re:Anthropic principle (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937252)

Just because I am *NOT* out to get you does not mean you arn't paranoid... :-}

Oh, give me a break. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935850)

the paper may explain why the laws of physics in our corner of the universe seem to be finely tuned to support life.

Ugh. Logical fallacy. Several of them, actually, depending on how you want to break it down. If the conditions weren't close enough to right, you wouldn't exist to observe the conditions. Therefore, anywhere a consciousness happens to exist is "finely tuned". The conditions could be wildly different from what we are familiar with and life there might be wildly different from what we think is possible, but it would still be "finely tuned" for that life.

In fact, the manipulative bit is the phrase "finely tuned" itself. It implicitly implies that someone is doing the tuning and shifts the balance of discussion into a default state of having a creator.

Re:Oh, give me a break. (2)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936676)

Yeah, that could be one interpretation of what he's saying and thank you for correcting that line of thought, but there could be another implication that everyone is missing. He could be trying to explain the lack of life elsewhere ( because the fine structure doesn't allow it elsewhere). So yes,we are tuned to the universe, but maybe sentient life can't exist in other areas of the universe with different fine structure constants.

Re:Oh, give me a break. (1)

AchilleTalon (540925) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936922)

In fact, life is tuning itself to the universe whenever possible. And the universe could have been unobservable as well, it is currently not the case, but there is no guarantee it will be always the case.

False Vacuum (2)

painandgreed (692585) | more than 2 years ago | (#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).

I've always wondered about this (3, Insightful)

MyLongNickName (822545) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935864)

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.

Re:I've always wondered about this (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936016)

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.

Re:I've always wondered about this (1)

camperdave (969942) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936898)

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?

Re:I've always wondered about this (1)

MyLongNickName (822545) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937044)

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.

Duh! "Finely tuned to support life" (1)

Mr Europe (657225) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935896)

"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.

Re:Duh! "Finely tuned to support life" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37935988)

I've been dealing with stupid people all day. I'm not so sure the laws of physics are finely tuned, at least not to support intelligent life.

Re:Duh! "Finely tuned to support life" (2)

BradleyUffner (103496) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935998)

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

Re:Duh! "Finely tuned to support life" (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937204)

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

Harumph! Harumph! (0)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#37935930)

How dare anyone question the simplicity, beauty and elegance that is the Standard Model? Next thing you know, they'll be saying that our list of emperical observations and exquisitely inter-balanced fudge factors (to 17 decimal places) doesn't contain any first principles! Blasphemy!

Re:Harumph! Harumph! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936996)

How dare anyone question the simplicity, beauty and elegance that is the Standard Model? Next thing you know, they'll be saying that our list of emperical observations and exquisitely inter-balanced fudge factors (to 17 decimal places) doesn't contain any first principles! Blasphemy!

In a way yes. Basing science on measured data rather than formulas means that you don't take for granted that math can accurately describe physics and that is considered blasphemy in many places.

Typical Slashdot Summary (2)

ifrag (984323) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Finely tuned for life? (2)

Vektuz (886618) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936068)

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.

But which constant isn't? (3, Interesting)

YTMDetc (2453116) | more than 2 years ago | (#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...

Re:But which constant isn't? (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937124)

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

not new; not really controversial, just wrong (5, Interesting)

bcrowell (177657) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936166)

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]

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936684)

This result must be wrong, unless we expect universe's "law axis" to coincidentally align with north and south hemispheres of earth, just convenient enough that it can't be observed with only one telescope. Nevertheless, it's how science works - you claim something (opportunistically) and other try to refute it or prove it indenpendently (if you still have some credibility).

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (0)

mapsjanhere (1130359) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936690)

In other words, if those experimentalists would just stop publishing data that contradict our beautiful theories we could stop having to add layers of invisible darkness to our models. What will it be called this time?

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936950)

No one has reproduced the results. Did you miss that bit?

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937038)

That's not the point, how many have tried? Not saying the results are true, but just because no one has reproduced it within weeks of peer review doesn't really mean anything. Seems like a fairly high standard to me.

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (-1, Troll)

mapsjanhere (1130359) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937208)

Nope, didn't miss that, because it won't matter. The standard model theorists will just explain their way around it if it is.

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (2)

Colonel Korn (1258968) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937434)

In other words, if those experimentalists would just stop publishing data that contradict our beautiful theories we could stop having to add layers of invisible darkness to our models. What will it be called this time?

Wow, welcome to my foe list.

1) He didn't say or imply that, and prefacing it with "in other words" is just a weaselly way to mischaracterize the implications of his post.
2) Statistics matter. When one study shows an extraordinary new result that is directly contradictory to a multitude of previously published, well understood experimental studies, that result must be backed by very statistically significant results.
3) Regarding your dark matter metaphor, the main alternative to dark matter, MOND, was recently quite thoroughly refuted by new experimental data showing that gravity acts the same at both local and galactic scales, as measured by red-shifting of light climbing out of gravity wells (not the usual redshift due to the light source receding at a rapid speed). Dark matter, in fact, has been amazingly well supported by all new experimental results since the concept was introduced. MOND, on the other hand, has been reformulated periodically because every measurement ever performed to distinguish MOND from the presence of dark matter has shown that MOND is untrue. Then the MOND people go back to the drawing board and come up with yet another variation to account for the new evidence. MOND is the epicycle here, not the "invisible darkness."

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (1)

arkenian (1560563) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936740)

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 conclusion I've seen in a bit. Personally I miss stuff like this. We need some more "weird" observations out there, to hopefully give the theoreticians a nudge in a significant direction. Besides, this is the sort of finding that funds new observatories to confirm or deny them! Finally, while I agree that publishing in a peer reviewed journal does not signify correctness, with a finding of this potential significance, I would argue that the peer review to double check the math for stupid mistakes was a critical step.

Re:not new; not really controversial, just wrong (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936872)

I seems to me that the fact that some scientists are saying that it COULD BE (I'll point out not is, but could be) true and others are saying "No, can't be true" is exactly the definition of controversial, regardless of whether it turns out to be true or not. They also did point out that the results were reached over a year ago, so it doesn't seem like they're claiming this to be quite new either.

To me it feels like you're using scientific sources to pick on the semantics of the article.

"weeks typical of most other papers" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37936248)

i dont know where you got that info,
months are my experience with the occasional year of waiting for the process
to complete

Third time is a charm (1)

AdrianKemp (1988748) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936330)

We previously reported Keck telescope observations suggesting a smaller value of the fine structure constant α at high redshift. New Very Large Telescope (VLT) data, probing a different direction in the Universe, shows an inverse evolution;

Not to say they definitely *don't* have something, but given that this represents a 180 of their previous report, I'm not going to jump up and down just yet.

Systematics (1)

PvtVoid (1252388) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936338)

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 to be a total joke. 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.

Re:Systematics (1)

holmstar (1388267) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936638)

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.

Re:Systematics (1)

radtea (464814) | more than 2 years ago | (#37937410)

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 result really depends on perhaps 10% of their data, and they don't show the individual objects, only lumped deltaAlpha/Alpha values for 20 - 25 objects per angular bin. This is entirely unsatisfactory, and if I'd been a reviewer I'd have insisted on the individual points being plotted, as it would have made clearer just how marginal the significance of their result is.

This stuff is about on par with the FTL neutrino results: very low probability of being new physics, huge implications if it is. Therefore it's good that it's getting published, but it would be bad if anyone took it very seriously.

Maybe Vernor Vinge had it right (1)

nordee (104555) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936356)

Suddenly "A Fire Upon the Deep" seems a little bit less like science fiction.

So maybe there's hope... (1)

mswhippingboy (754599) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936402)

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.

Then again... (1)

mswhippingboy (754599) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936490)

Maybe the two anomalies mentioned are just bugs in the software running the matrix...

Does that explain the arrow of time? (2)

bigsexyjoe (581721) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Not so fast... (1)

jklappenbach (824031) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936616)

From TFA:

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.”

Until these findings can be verified by multiple instruments per hemisphere, this looks more like a desperate attempt to save face than present credible data.

Connection with OPERA (1)

LeDopore (898286) | more than 2 years ago | (#37936976)

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?) that refract light a tiny bit, and this field was denser in the early universe. This field would not affect the apparent speed of light as an observer moves through it, just as (ignoring dispersion) light traveling through moving glass doesn't pick up the glass' motion vector (i.e. this wouldn't manifest itself as the Luminiferous aether, which is experimentally disproven).

There: three mysteries (dark matter, OPERA neutrinos and the fine structure "constant") all tied together with a bow on top. If you know more physics than I (honours undergrad) and you think I've missed something, please tear into this hypothesis, either here or on my blog: http://many-ideas.blogspot.com/2011/11/ftl-neutrinos-and-fine-structure.html [blogspot.com] . I look forward to hearing from you!

Best,

LeDopore

Re:Connection with OPERA (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937476)

So if the proposed difference in physical constant is true, then could we still live in those far reaches of Universe or would the difference in physical constants kill us ?

Also would the same be true to any hostile aliens wanting to move to Earth?

---Do I really need to update my plans for my Galactic Empire?

So the Mayas were right (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937156)

First it was neutrinos faster than light, then Rossi and his impossible Fusion reactor, and now this... So the world ends because the laws of physics apply no more?

A year isn't unheard-of (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937294)

Controversy isn't the only reason a paper might be held up for a year or so. Papers routinely take six months or more to appear in PRL - just have a look at a few other articles.

Here's some from the last week or two, selected in consecutive order.
7, 6, 3, 6, 6, 5, 8, 2, 7, 5, 3, 14 (paper in question), 2, 6, 5, 4, 5, 5, 3, 11, 3, 4, 3 ...

To be able to continue using older APIs... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37937418)

You can just cast it to (const) to avoid all the compiler warnings until upstream fixes the function prototypes to non-const. Just don't tell QA about this, and they won

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