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Scientists Question Laws of Nature

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 8 years ago | from the not-so-constant-constants dept.

314

mknewman writes "MSNBC is reporting that scientists are finding differences in many of the current scientific 'constants' including the speed of light, alpha (the fine structure constant of the magnetic force), the ratio of proton to electron mass and several others. These findings were made by observing quasars and comparing the results to tests here on the earth." From the article: "Time-varying constants of nature violate Einstein's equivalence principle, which says that any experiment testing nuclear or electromagnetic forces should give the same result no matter where or when it is performed. If this principle is broken, then two objects dropped in a gravitational field should fall at slightly different rates. Moreover, Einstein's gravitational theory -- general relativity -- would no longer be completely correct, Martins says."

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hi (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706379)

i am einstein, the genius

Re:hi (1)

spun (1352) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706717)

Yes, I often feel that way when I'm drunk, too.

Interesting Things Happen At Excessive Scales (4, Interesting)

Real World Stuff (561780) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706383)

For example, Ohm's Law is much more interesting at a sub-microscopic levels [gsu.edu]

Re:Interesting Things Happen At Excessive Scales (5, Informative)

HateBreeder (656491) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706524)

Just to point out,
There is no such thing as "Ohm's Law", in the sense of a "Law".
It's just a rough estimate to Maxwell's Equations under certain conditions.
Which, themselves are rough estimates to behaviors described by Quantum Mechanics.

Re:Interesting Things Happen At Excessive Scales (4, Funny)

truthsearch (249536) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706526)

Hmm... nope. Still boring. ;)

Re:Interesting Things Happen At Excessive Scales (1)

Billosaur (927319) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706678)

Never thought I'd see the day when "Ohm's Law" and "interesting" would be used in the same sentence.

Difference between "ARE" and "MAY" (5, Informative)

Artfldgr (844531) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706747)

in the post text you read:
"scientists are finding differences in many of the current scientific 'constants'"


in the article the sentence says:
"Recent research has found evidence that the value of certain fundamental parameters, such as the speed of light or the invisible glue that holds nuclei together, may have been different in the past."



whats the use if people cant tell the difference between MAY and ARE?

there is a big difference between "you MAY die this week" and "you ARE to die this week"



i know, its all relative, and i know what they meant... but you know what? thats not true. i opened this because i thought the may actually turned to an are... a possibliity realized. when i get there, its still may, and people cant even read basically.

12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding Univ (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706385)

"There is absolutely no reason these constants should be constant," says astronomer Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "These are famous numbers in physics, but we have no real reason for why they are what they are."
Well, I'm a computer scientist not a physicist but I thought these constants are present because all observations so far have verified that. We aren't able to make observations from several million or billion years ago so we cannot tell whether or not these constants change or at what rate. Our instruments are not precise enough to do that nor have they been around long enough.

I recall reading that as a universe expands or contracts, the constants would theoretically change to adjust to the expansion or contraction of the basic building blocks of matter.

Not all quasar data is consistent with variations. In 2004, a group of astronomers -- including Patrick Petitjean of the Astrophysical Institute of Paris -- found no change in the fine structure constant using quasar spectra from the Very Large Telescope in Chile. No one has yet explained the discrepancy with the Keck telescope results. "These measurements are so difficult and at the extreme end of what can be achieved by the telescopes that it is very difficult to answer this question," Petitjean says.
Is it possible that the measuring instruments failed here? I thought that was always a possibility in observations. Is it also possible that the quasars we are observing are differing light years away and thus we are making observations based on data from several billion years ago (as the article states)?

"We have an incomplete theory, so you look for holes that will point to a new theory," Murphy says. Varying constants may be just such a hole.
Yes, I think that there is call for speculation on the constants varying over billions of years since the light we are observing is roughly 12 billion years old and all our observations here on earth remain static.

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (5, Interesting)

gilroy (155262) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706479)

Blockquoth the poster:

Is it also possible that the quasars we are observing are differing light years away and thus we are making observations based on data from several billion years ago (as the article states)?

Oh, it's worse than that. The quasars are different distances away. How do we figure out how far away they are? By measuring the redshift in the frequencies of their spectra. What do we use for that? The relativistic Doppler formula. What is the key constant in the Doppler formula? The speed of light. Actualy, it's even worse, because it's not the naive Doppler formula but one that includes cosmological effects which are not independently observable.

In other words, the distance of the quasars -- and the frequency their light "should" be -- are highly model-dependent.

There's less to this story than meets the eye.

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (1)

avirrey (972127) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706619)

I'm not a physicist either... Electrical, but if they are using the gaseous clouds in their measurements, what makes them believe the gaseous clouds are not moving? I mean if you have different densities and different gasses moving at various different speeds... wouldn't all that contaminate the results? I mean I'm not at work all the time, when I'm there the 'lights' are 'on', and when I'm at home, the 'lights' at work are 'off'. Eh?

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (4, Informative)

wanerious (712877) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706746)

How do we figure out how far away they are? By measuring the redshift in the frequencies of their spectra. What do we use for that? The relativistic Doppler formula.

Only at pretty low redshift, though. At any redshift appreciably close to or greater than 1, there really isn't much meaning to "distance" --- would you interpret that distance to be at the time of emission, the time of detection, or somewhere in between? We basically just use the cosmological redshift, which says that the redshift z represents how much the universe has expanded since the radiation was emitted. That's it. Any "distance" or lookback time is model-dependent. Instead of measuring slight deviations in universal constants, they are perhaps measuring perturbations in a particular cosmological model.

In other words, the distance of the quasars -- and the frequency their light "should" be -- are highly model-dependent.

Right --- I'm just picking nits, since I've seen lots of confusion by others in similar reports.

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (0)

hador_nyc (903322) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706523)

"We have an incomplete theory, so you look for holes that will point to a new theory," Murphy says. Varying constants may be just such a hole. Yes, I think that there is call for speculation on the constants varying over billions of years since the light we are observing is roughly 12 billion years old and all our observations here on earth remain static.
Not so. The universe is only 5 thousand years old. DUH!!! ;P

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706537)

Yes but think of the children......nope doesn't really apply here.

I for one welcome our variable speed of light overlo.....okay yeah that doesn't really apply.

First post.......dammit!!!!

Err.... (2, Insightful)

brian0918 (638904) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706552)

"We aren't able to make observations from several million or billion years ago so we cannot tell whether or not these constants change or at what rate."

Look out at the stars. You're seeing them as they appeared several million or billion years ago. The light that you now see from the sun is 8 minutes old, for comparison. All the data we collect from outer space is historical information--how the universe was in the past.

Re:Err.... (1)

nelsonal (549144) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706623)

I think they mean we can't look several billion years further into the past to identify if the rate was constant and changed once, decaying, changing linearly etc. Say the quasar's light was now 10 billion years old, they mean we would like to see light from 11 billion years ago to see what the observation would have been 11 billion years ago, etc.

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (0, Troll)

Goaway (82658) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706573)

Well, I'm a computer scientist not a physicist but I thought these constants are present because all observations so far have verified that.

Well, if your train of thought seriously stopped at "oh, we measured their values", then it's no wonder you're not a physicist.

Re:12 Billion Year Old Light & the Expanding U (2, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706621)

> Yes, I think that there is call for speculation on the constants varying over billions of years ...

Yet more evidence that the universe is just a gigantic computer simulation.

Old programmer's adage: Variables won't. Constants aren't.

Speed of Light (5, Funny)

MECC (8478) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706387)

FTA:the quasar observations are sometimes interpreted as indicating that light was faster in the past,

They just don't make photons like they use to...

Re:Speed of Light (1)

kfg (145172) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706443)

FTA: Faster Than Ants

KFG

Damn yung'uns (5, Funny)

BlackCobra43 (596714) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706450)

In my days we had to wait for the light to travel 1,000,000 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways, to measure it - and we LIKED it.

Re:Speed of Light (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706470)

Why have I been expecting this?

young earth (1)

ChristTrekker (91442) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706471)

Isn't that a popular theory with "young earth" creationists?

Re:Speed of Light (1)

Photon Ghoul (14932) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706505)

Ah, crap I knew this wasn't going to be a good day for me.

*leaps through the doorway* (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706389)

No one expects the Science Inquisition!

*runs back out the door*

I declare a "War on Quasars" ... (5, Funny)

supersnail (106701) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706390)

filthy law breaking unearthly quasars should be hunted down and expelled from the galaxy.

Re:I declare a "War on Quasars" ... (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706434)

filthy law breaking unearthly quasars should be hunted down and expelled from the galaxy.
Funny enough, they are most likely galaxies themselves and definitely NOT part of ours.

Re:I declare a "War on Quasars" ... (1)

Salzorin (985348) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706632)

Is this how the Time War started?

Of course there are differences (0, Offtopic)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706391)

There are no pirates on a quaser.
However there are many here on earth.

Dharma Initiative (3, Funny)

OctoberSky (888619) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706402)

For those wondering who "scientists" are, it's the Dharma crew.

I would recommend not flying/sailing for the next few months.

Thank God (1, Flamebait)

Spackler (223562) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706404)

Thank God that it is a law of nature we are questioning to gain more understanding of the universe, because if it was questioning God, we would not be allowed to change our minds as we understood more.

Re:Thank God (1)

HoboMaster (639861) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706707)

So you're saying that no religions have changed in the last couple thousand years?

Look at the Catholic church 500 years ago, and look at it now, and then tell me religions can't change.

Just because there are hardheaded people who believe in religion doesn't mean you can generalize that to all religious people. There are also scientists who refuse to change their beliefs, that doesn't mean you should denounce science.

Filota? (1)

Ruvim (889012) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706411)

If that's the case, should we phisicists start looking for a new particle, underlying eveything? Filota, enyone?

Re:Filota? (3, Informative)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706436)

Do you mean philote [wikipedia.org] , or am I just missing something? Either way, physicists might object to your use of the word "we." :)

Re:Filota? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706616)

Physicists like you should start with a class in English so that you can communicate more effectively and precisely. If English is not your first language, but you plan on using it a lot, then take this as friendly advice.

honestly... (5, Funny)

Digitus1337 (671442) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706415)

It doesn't take an Einstein to... aww crap.

This is a good thing (5, Interesting)

growse (928427) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706419)

This is a good thing. One of two things will happen from this

:
  1. The scientists are right and Einstein wasn't 100% correct.
  2. The scientists are wrong and let dust onto the damn sensors again

If option (1) is true, it means we're entering that sort of post-Einsteinian "What the hell's going on here" phase in science, where we have a theory that we thought is good and we have some measurements which we also know are good and conflict with the theory. This will lead to lots more experiments being done and allow us to invent hyperspace faster.

If option (2) is true, it means that the scientists in question will be metaphorically shot by the scientific community for daring to question the great reletivity laws, and remove bad scientists from the community.

It's a win-win!

Re:This is a good thing (1)

geoffspear (692508) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706544)

(1) is true, it means we're entering that sort of post-Einsteinian "What the hell's going on here" phase in science

Been there, done that, got the quantum mechanics.

Re:This is a good thing (1)

Martin Blank (154261) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706696)

Quantum physics was evolving as Einstein was doing his work, but it left Einstein feeling uneasy. Given that Einstein grew up learning a fairly Newtonian view of the world, it's understandable that he was hesitant to leave all of it behind even as he was redefining much of it. Although perhaps he didn't view it as redefining, but rather (consciously or unconsciously) refining, whereas quantum mechanics really are a redefinition of the laws of physics.

Re:This is a good thing (1)

mOdQuArK! (87332) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706713)

Been there, done that, got the quantum mechanics.

Lemme guess - the next stage is something even _weirder_ than quantum mechanics...

Re:This is a good thing (1)

drewzhrodague (606182) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706579)

The scientists are right and Einstein wasn't 100% correct.

If option (1) is true, it means we're entering that sort of post-Einsteinian "What the hell's going on here" phase in science, where we have a theory that we thought is good and we have some measurements which we also know are good and conflict with the theory. This will lead to lots more experiments being done and allow us to invent hyperspace faster.

Totally. Get me off this crazy planet! Seriously. I've been paying attention to various things like this (with the help of /.), and I can't wait for Gravity Probe B [stanford.edu] to (hopefully) raise some more questions, among other projects.

With this planet's increasing inhospitability, I'd like to at least check out Mars in my lifetime. Perhaps there's intelligent life over there, 'cause there's certainly not much here.

Re:This is a good thing (4, Insightful)

Mac Degger (576336) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706601)

Option 1 has always been true. Not since the quantum crisis have scientists been that arrogant to assume that their theories are set in stone; we're constantly refining the models to fit reality better and better. Hell, even if we finally accomodate all the forces into one model, we'll assume that that model will eventually be surpased by one which is better and more precise. Modern science is based on the fact that we realise we're pretty much never 100% correct.

Re:This is a good thing (3, Interesting)

Jhan (542783) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706617)

This is a good thing. One of two things will happen from this :
  1. The scientists are right and Einstein wasn't 100% correct.
  2. The scientists are wrong and let dust onto the damn sensors again
I'd say 1. It's not just the "variable constants", it's the way the galaxy rotates, it's the anisotropy measurements of the comsic background etc. You know, all the evidence piling up over the last few decades that lead cosmologists to pull first dark matter, then dark energy out of their hats.

Apparently 96% of our entire universe is now believed to be made up by these two substances, neither of wich have been explained. I suggest that one of the following options are true:

  1. With many "patches" the existing theories can be contorted enough to explain the new data (see also epicycles, phlogiston)
  2. A new theory will explain these anomalies in a simple and obvious way.

My bet is 2, and string theory is not it... Interesting times ahead, mark my word.

Never close doors... (3, Funny)

electrosoccertux (874415) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706627)

Even the ones you think lead to a gaping abyss. You never know when there'll be an ore field on the way.

I'm tired of hearing people tell my friend from Georgia Tech that he can't develope a free energy device. The quantum model is far from perfect. It is entirely possible we could extract the [theories, now] ZPE (our gravitational like-force experienced in the casimir-effect) from empty space. Who are these people to comdemn him? How many of them went to Georgia Tech? Do they have the schematics and plans for a device for free energy? No. How would they know anything about it? Are they willing to fund him so he can build his? Even though that might prove them right, they're too busy running after their quantum smoke. They're no better than the Catholic Church railing on Galileo.

Re:This is a good thing (1)

Jasin Natael (14968) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706639)

Or, we're saying "Einstein is right, but a quasar pulsing at one time will have a noticably different set of characteristics from a similar quasar several billion light years later." If the constants vary over time, it has no effect on the validity of Einstein's observations (AFAIK). The light they're measuring comes from different eras in the universe's history. However, knowing how the constants vary over time is much more helpful, because then we could make better guesses as to why they would do so.

Re:This is a good thing (1)

mOdQuArK! (87332) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706734)

Considering that one of the constants that they are talking about include the speed of light, what these guys are saying has a great deal of effect on the validity of Einstein's observations, since a lot of them started specifically with the assumption that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference.

Re:This is a good thing (4, Insightful)

Thangodin (177516) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706653)

If option (2) is true, it means that the scientists in question will be metaphorically shot by the scientific community for daring to question the great reletivity laws, and remove bad scientists from the community.

No, they won't be shot. Stephen Hawking has challenged Einstein's theories and been wrong about nearly everything he's ever proposed, and he's still considered a good physicist. It's okay to challenge the dominant theory, just as long as you have good evidence to back it up, and your theory explains something that nothing else does. Bad science is done with poor or no evidence, explains even less than the current theory, and is usually presented to the general public without peer review. When confronted with evidence that proves their theory false, good scientists concede, while bad scientists wail on about scientific orthodoxy and appeal to popular opinion.

Chaos Theory (2, Interesting)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706426)

The lorenz attractor is a mathematical example of how sensitivity to initial conditions can affect the results of any test.
There is no way that ANY test can be reproduced perfectly multiple times, however for a large percentage of things tested the differences are so small they are negligable.
If you take a double pendulum and try (to scientific precision) to orient the beams to the exact location the results will be different every single time you do it (fluctuations in the universes' gravitational field caused by me farting or a butterfly flapping its wings for instance).

However, (1)

tpjunkie (911544) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706475)

It'll always be cool to watch

Re:Chaos Theory (1)

NichG (62224) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706498)

Depends on what you're measuring. If you measure the energy of that double pendulum you'll find its more reproducible than the exact x,y,z positions of the bobs. And of course if you measure averages over many runs you're set; the averages of one set of 1000 runs and the averages of a separate set of 1000 runs will be decently similar, and you can predict how different they should be by looking at the statistics you got from those different runs. Chaos doesn't mean 'give up', it means 'measure the things which tie to the qualitative aspects of the system because those things don't change even when the detailed state changes'

Re:Chaos Theory (1)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706559)

Like I said, however for a large percentage of things tested the differences are so small they are negligible
If the test is "find the average path over 1000 attempts" then yes, you can get a rough average and give an intelligent prediction, but you still cannot say with certainty the path of the bobs at the next attempt.

Re:Chaos Theory (2, Insightful)

MustardMan (52102) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706608)

however for a large percentage of things tested the differences are so small they are negligible

This is an incorrect interpretation. Some things are chaotic, and some are not. Things that are chaotic have regimes where they behave chaotically and regimes where they do not.

Also, you don't need a fart or butterfly wing to make a coupled pendulum sensitive to initial conditions, the simple fact that it's impossible to exactly replicate the position is enough. any difference, even a single atom's width, will lead to paths in phase space which eventually diverge.

Re:Chaos Theory (1)

bunions (970377) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706563)

Not all calculations are inherently chaotic. The lorentz attractor is a great example of a calculation that is, but there's plenty that aren't.

Law of Nature: Grass Grows Faster after it is Cut (-1, Offtopic)

xmas2003 (739875) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706438)

A law of nature seems to be that when you mow your lawn, the grass just grows back faster - I guess we'll find out here! ;-) [watching-grass-grow.com]

Title is pretty circular (5, Insightful)

MrNougat (927651) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706439)

Scientists Question Laws of Nature

Isn't "questioning laws of nature" by definition what scientists do? Question, hypothesis, experiment, theory, law, lather, rinse, repeat - right?

Re:Title is pretty circular (1)

0racle (667029) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706512)

I believe that mostly, they use the existing knowledge of the laws of nature to understand how those laws shape nature. You can't form a proper hypothesis if you don't know enough to ask the right questions.

Re:Title is pretty circular (1)

Mac Degger (576336) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706631)

It all starts from observation of reality...those laws of nature have to fit the observables.

Re:Title is pretty circular (1)

Moofie (22272) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706521)

I think it would be more accurate to title the article "Scientists question previous assumptions about the way the world works, which have in the past been arbitrarily defined as "Laws of Nature" by previous generations of scientists".

But that's not as sound-bite-y.

"Scientists do exactly what they're supposed to do" doesn't grab the headlines either, does it?

Re:Title is pretty circular (1)

Sabaki (531686) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706539)

That's kind of what I was thinking.

Next they'll be telling us the theory of relativity is just a theory!

Re:Title is pretty circular (4, Interesting)

jfengel (409917) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706640)

Yeah, I noticed the same thing. In one sense it's kind of irritating to have the insinuation perpetrate the myth that scientists have a non-rational belief equivalent to a religious belief, and that these scientsts are some kind of heretics. We know what they meant, but still...

A more precise headline is somewhat harder to write: "Scientists find evidence that they may have to refine or even refactor some really, really well-demonstrated theories" isn't nearly as punchy.

(Scientists do, in fact, have non-rational fundamentally held beliefs, but they're nothing so simple as "Einstein was right, Darwin was right". Trying to convince somebody that a scientist's real religious belief is "The universe has some sort of fundamental, objective, and probably comparatively simple law, one that we can understand or at least produce successively more acurate approximations, one that can be modeled mathematically and is true over all space and time, one that makes predictions that can be tested and will stand up to all such tests all the time" is rather more complicated and less fun. And yes, I recognize that my approximation of that belief above is both more complicated and less accurate than some other formulations, but I'm already drifting dangerously off-topic.)

Re:Title is pretty circular (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706674)

You forget that science works only if the world is *understandable*. If laws of nature don't hold, then science is seriously hit. Hopefully it will turn out that the changes in the laws of nature, if any, are gradual and can be modeled like everything else.

Re:Title is pretty circular (1)

govtpiggy (978532) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706690)

Close. Just remember that scientific theories and laws differ intrinsically. A theory doesn't become a law after enough time or validation.

Myth 1: Hypotheses Become Theories Which Become Laws [amasci.com]

scientific method (3, Insightful)

lazarusdishwasher (968525) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706460)

Doesn't the scientific method say that when the answers don't fit you need to ask why and go throught the steps again? I rember learning in my high school chemistry class that pv=nrt and my teacher said that higher levels of chemistry don't use that formula because it is just sort of a rough guide to gasses. If my chemistry teacher was right I would guess that scientists figured out the easy formula once and fine tuned it as they gained knowledge and better instruments.

Re:scientific method (1)

servognome (738846) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706546)

I rember learning in my high school chemistry class that pv=nrt and my teacher said that higher levels of chemistry don't use that formula because it is just sort of a rough guide to gasses.

It's because the fundamental assumptions for that equation are not true (eg the particles do not interact). It is used at higher levels for theory development, but for useful applications a measured constant is often included to make up for the discrepency between theoretical models and actual observation.

Re:scientific method (1)

bunions (970377) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706587)

that's why it's called the Ideal Gas Law.

Re:scientific method (1)

geoffspear (692508) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706592)

I don't know much about the evolution of the formulas behind chemistry, but in high school physics when you study simple Newtonian mechanics the teacher will give you lots of algebraic formulas to memorize.

If you take a college physics course (and you're still doing simple Newtonian mechanics), you'll find that you're using calculus instead, because it works a lot better. You might conclude that physicists used to use algebra and refined it until they got calculus. You'd have it completely backwards. High schools use the "easy" formulas because they're easy, not because they're older.

Of course, as scientists gained knowledge and better instruments, they also learned that Newtonian mechanics is itself a gross simplification of reality, and that it stops working when you're dealing with things that are very small or moving very fast, but that's another issue altogether.

Re:scientific method (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706672)

Exactly.

First, we had some basic observations that were qualitatively OK, but not good enough for any calculations.

Then we had Newtonian physics. F=ma and such. This was good enough for lots of calculations, and is still good for most calculations today.

Then we had Einstein and quantum physics. Now we could better explain some of the strange things that were observed happening at extreme scales, but some calculations still don't fit the observations exactly.

Now, some observations at extreme time scales seem to indicate that some things that we thought were constant may not be truly constant.

Now it's time for the scientists to refine the experiments or observations to quantify the variations and hand these data over to the physicists and mathematicians to formulate a theory. That is what science is at the most basic level. In order to move forward, we must be able to admit that our knowledge may be wrong or incomplete.

systematic and random errors (3, Interesting)

helioquake (841463) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706466)

Sometimes in astronomy, the handling in errors (both random and systematic) is sloppily done. The random error is probably done ok; but how about systematic ones?

In an attempt to publish hastily, scientists often willingfully ignore some shortcomings in instrumetal calibration, etc., and may not take into account all the uncertainties that should be propagated through their calculations. I hope that those astronomers are not embarrassing themselves by making an error like that.

Re:systematic and random errors (1)

Chosen Reject (842143) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706698)

In an attempt to publish hastily, scientists often willingfully ignore some shortcomings

I like how you work examples into your writing.

This isn't new (4, Informative)

whitehatlurker (867714) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706469)

Apart from the time scale involved, this isn't all that new. Scientific American had an article [sciam.com] on this over a year ago.

Quasar Distance (1)

Neon Spiral Injector (21234) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706480)

What if the quasars are not where the scientists think they are, and the who red-shift as a measure of distance in the universe is wrong?

Re:Quasar Distance (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706515)

When you want to prove that "change over time" is not zero, all you need to show is that the numerator "change" is non-zero. Uncertainty or error in the denominator "time" is not important.

General Relativity (2, Interesting)

duplicate-nickname (87112) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706483)

Isn't general relativity incorrect for sub atomic particles anyway? ....it's been like 10 years since my last quantum physics class.

Re:General Relativity (3, Informative)

metamatic (202216) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706648)

It's not so much "incorrect" as "impossible to test" or "irrelevant", because gravity is 17 orders of magnitude weaker than the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces which dominate at the atomic and subatomic scales.

"Scientists Question Laws of Nature" (3, Funny)

KIFulgore (972701) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706493)

Well.... yeah. That's their jeorb.

Re:"Scientists Question Laws of Nature" (1)

HoboMaster (639861) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706728)

Jaeraerorarb!

Lack of understanding of the constants? (2, Interesting)

Weaselmancer (533834) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706500)

From the blurb:

Time-varying constants of nature violate Einstein's equivalence principle, which says that any experiment testing nuclear or electromagnetic forces should give the same result no matter where or when it is performed.

Maybe there is a hidden assumption in there. Maybe space itself isn't constant.

We're already thinking that space may have an energy to it. [slashdot.org] If it has energy, then space would have an equivalent mass. Possibly you could describe that as a density of sorts.

So if space itself has a sort of density, then maybe the slight differences you see in the constants are caused by the varying density of different regions of space they are traveling through to be measured.

IANAP, YMMV, etc. But I think it might be at least possible. Einstein's principle above would have to be edited to say "in equivalent spaces".

That always seems to be the way of scientific progress. You create a set of equations describing what you see, like Newton did. Then someone can see a little farther, and amend them like Einstein did. Another amendment wouldn't be "questioning the laws of nature", it would just simply be understanding them a little better.

Re:Lack of understanding of the constants? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706670)

We're already thinking that space may have an energy to it. If it has energy, then space would have an equivalent mass. Possibly you could describe that as a density of sorts.

Yes, that's true. In some dark energy models, such as the cosmological constant, the "energy density of vacuum" is constant. In others, such as "quintessence", what we think is the energy density of vacuum is really due to some kind of dynamical field, and can vary.

So if space itself has a sort of density, then maybe the slight differences you see in the constants are caused by the varying density of different regions of space they are traveling through to be measured.

Taken literally as being due to vacuum energy density inhomogeneities, that's less likely, but it is possible that a dark energy field which causes variations in the vacuum energy might also cause variations in other supposed constants. However, I'm not aware of any work which successfully links the dark energy field to these other expeirments. It's hard to come up with one kind of field which can account for ostensibly independent phenomena.

This affects science little in the present but... (1)

Bryansix (761547) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706509)

it affects scientists ability to conjecture about what happened in the past greatly. *Wait one while I put on my flameproof suit* Ok so if I may dare to say it I think that this may finally give some backing to the opponents of Macro-Evolution since carbon dating may actually be inaccurate at showing the lapse such long periods of time and the Earth might not be old enough to support Macro-Evolutionary theory in it's current form.

*Jumps out a window and activates his parachute while dodging a hail of bullets coated in hate*

Re:This affects science little in the present but. (1)

ShibaInu (694434) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706615)

Nice try, but carbon dating only works up to 60K years http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dating [wikipedia.org] . The distance and time out to quasars is billions of years - beggining of universe type time.

Re:This affects science little in the present but. (1)

geoffspear (692508) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706683)

Like that's going to stop the ID people from harping on this.

"If theoretical physics can get some things wrong, it's exactly as likely that God built the entire universe as it is 6000 years ago as it is that we evolved over millions of years" sounds like a valid argument to these people.

Re:This affects science little in the present but. (1)

Mr. Slippery (47854) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706736)

since carbon dating may actually be inaccurate at showing the lapse such long periods of time

No. We're talking about very small changes over billions of years. Any effect on radiometric dating would be a tiny fraction of a percent, completely irrelevant to paleobiology - you're not going to hear, "OMG! With this new model, we understand that this fossil is actually 2,317,001 years old (plus or minus 2,000), not 2,317,000 (plus or minus 2,000)! This changes everything!"

Grain of salt time (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706513)

It's worth noting that none of the results described in TFA have actually been confirmed, that they are in fact recent and highly contested, and that many such claims in the past were subsequently retracted or refuted. There is a minor bandwagon on "variable constants", actually; everybody and their brother is measuring physical constants, and pointing at any minor statistical fluctuation way out at the edges of detectability as "evidence of variation".

The implications would be very interesting if any of these claims panned out (which is why it's so popular to make claims like this in the literature), and there are theories in which some of these "constants" are indeed allowed to vary, but we'll need to wait years to see if followup experiments determine that any of these effects are real. Personally, I'm skeptical that any of the specific constants discussed have been proven variable by any of the experiments mentioned in the TFA. I'm not saying the experimentalists are incompetent, but the reported effects are so hard to measure that the effect may just go away after a few more independent checks; this has happened a lot in the literature.

Rupert Sheldrake ... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706542)

... thinks most of the so-called "laws of nature" are more like habits. Here's his essay on The Variability of Fundamental Constants [sheldrake.org] .

Are you kidding? (1)

Brass Cannon (882254) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706556)

I call BS.

When an experiment is performed does not matter...

Unless the time in which it is performed happens to be in the VERY early stages of the creation of the universe. At which point, the long established laws of nature break down.

Check me if I'm wrong but quasars are remnants of the very early state of the universe.

heisenberg priciple, say "hello." (2, Interesting)

swschrad (312009) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706575)

the closer you get to measuring a small event, the more the attempt to measure it gets in the way.

also called the "uncertainty principle."

there is a good chance that all these differing microerrors in all sorts of differing directions are different diffractions through inteference in what we can observe, thus proving the heisenberg principle has raised its ugly head again.

aka don't sweat it until you get a couple thousand indicators in the same direction. just like this week's surprise medical discovery that pesticides cure cancer, or coffee cures cancer, or coffee cures pesticides, or whatever bogus wrong-way publication made it into print on one limited study. the last line of those articles always reads, "The findings suggest that further studies in the field should be undertaken," which is code for "The previous article was written to get more grant money, send to PO Box 666, Unterderlinden, NJ."

Physical laws are not "wrong" (5, Informative)

Darren Hiebert (626456) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706578)

Einstein's gravitational theory -- general relativity -- would no longer be completely correct, Martins says.

First of all, let me preface this by saying IAAP (I am a physicist):

All this talk of laws being "wrong" or no longer "correct" is just popular fluff the press either hypes or makes up.

No physical law is ever completely correct. A physical law is simply a description of reality to the degree to which we understand it, and is "correct" (i.e. produces predicitions which fit our measurements) within the realm of our present experience of the phenomenon it describes. As our understanding and experience of a phenomenon grows to encompass a wider range of circumstances (e.g. scale, velocity), the law needs to be either refined or replaced with new law, possibly based upon a new paradigm.

Newton's laws of motion are no less "correct" now than they ever were. Einstein determined that the realm in which they accurately described reality did not include large velocities near the speed of light (i.e. >0.1c). Quantum mechanics explained how at small scales these same rules no longer applied. Even today, no one yet knows how to reconcile the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics when their realms overlap--this is still pioneering work.

Yet Newton's laws are still taught as the foundation of physics to all new students because they are still valid within the realm or experience in which all of our normal lives are conducted. Models, and the laws derived with them, are valid only within the realm of experience within which they were formed (and, if the inventer is lucky, they hold even beyond that). And they remain valid within that realm even when we find later than they don't hold outside that realm. Even Aristotle's belief that heavier objects fall faster than light objects is valid to a point (within a realm where air friction is a significant contributor), even though Galileo later "proved" this was wrong (i.e. it is not a general law).

Mod parent up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706718)

I spend a major amount of time explaining that the formulas that my students memorize are just approximations of reality. In engineering terms, you choose the approximation that is close enough to get the job done. As the requirement for accuracy increases, so does the length of the equation you use.

The parent is absolutely right, Newton is just as accurate now as he was 100 years ago. I don't need quantum physics to calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell. On the other hand, if I want to predict the wavelength of a laser then Newton doesn't quite cut it.

Re:Physical laws are not "wrong" (2, Funny)

McBainLives (683602) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706737)

No physical law is ever completely correct. A physical law is simply a description of reality to the degree to which we understand it, and is "correct" (i.e. produces predicitions which fit our measurements) within the realm of our present experience of the phenomenon it describes. As our understanding and experience of a phenomenon grows to encompass a wider range of circumstances (e.g. scale, velocity), the law needs to be either refined or replaced with new law, possibly based upon a new paradigm.

Wow- that's how legal laws work too. Just substitute "campaign contributions" for "wider range of circumstances" and you'll see it. Spooky...

(Yes, I'm a lawyer. I'll prove it: any of y'all responding to this post (hereafter "YOU") will be billed at a rate of $200/hr (in six minute increments) if such replies might be reasonably construed as soliciting a further reply...)

Offtopic? Maybe.... SM not working. (4, Interesting)

jeblucas (560748) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706588)

I've been stewing about this for a long time, I've called into NPR talk shows about it, etc. I feel like the Standard Model [wikipedia.org] is irrevocably broken. There's a generation of physicists that really loves the hell out this thing, but it's got so many problems. I was tangentially involved with "proton sigma-r" cross-section experiments [osti.gov] at the University of Redlands that violated the Standard Model. A lot of the SM's important values are empirical and "bolted on". A number of its predictions are not yet found (Higgs boson, anyone? Bueller?)

Yes, it predicted a number of cool particles, and sure enough, there they are. It also craps out more and more lately. Neutrinos oscillate, huh? Uh, well, we'll fix that later. Gravity... yeah. That's a bitch. I know! More free variables! We're at 19 now, what's 10 more?

This whole thing smacks of turn-of-the-20th-century Newtonians trying to cobble together a decent explanation for black-body radiators [egglescliffe.org.uk] . They tried all kinds of tricks--turns out they didn't work, because the system is not Newtonian. Newtonian physics was awesome for predicting meso-scale behavior, but it's a dog at small and large scales. Similarly, I think, the Standard Model was super-dynamite for a good number of years, but to hang on to it through all these issues should be a red flag that something else might be a better explanation. Kuhn, here we come. [wikipedia.org]

Noether's Theorem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706589)

If this is true, then by Noether's Theorem [wikipedia.org] , the law of conservation of energy is invalid. What does that mean for our universe?

I've often wondered... (1)

TheNoxx (412624) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706590)

On the subject of string theory and the possibility of other universes/dimensions with differing laws of nature, I've often wondered about whether constants change with time or the growth of a universe; if the spatial complexities or aging or changes in dimensions we don't percieve directly affect constants and laws... while we can percieve light that originated billions of years ago, that light may be subject to different laws as it reaches us now. We'd have no real way to test it, either, as our measurements of the universe are far too nacent.

Just a thought, could be totally off-track.

Star Trek TNG for real? (4, Funny)

imaginaryelf (862886) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706604)

Q: "Easy: Change the gravitational constant of the universe."

Geordi: "What?"

Q: "Change the gravitational constant of the universe, thereby altering the asteroid's orbit."

Geordi: "How do you do that?"

Q: "You just DO it, that's all..."

Data: "What Geordi is saying is that we do not have the ability to change the gravitational constant of the universe."

Q: "Well, then, you obviously never read slashdot."

Re:Star Trek TNG for real? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706740)

I always wondered about that quote from TNG. If Q changed the gravitational constant of the universe, it would alter the orbit of the asteroid and everything else. In the end would changing that constant, universally, even help in their situation?

What a load of bullshit. (5, Insightful)

Pinkybum (960069) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706609)

Scientific theories form two main purposes: 1. They are useful at predicting how things will behave (e.g. important for NASA) 2. They provide a framework to show the way for future work. Einstein's axioms of constancy were constructs built from empirical evidence which yielded some interesting and very useful insights into the way things worked. They also showed potential paths forward which Einstein himself pursued until his death. Einstein himself knew his theories were not the last word and any scientist knows this is a fundamental philosophy of the scientific method. The rest of the world can pretend there is something else sensational going on if they want to but it isn't science.

Deconstruction is True! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706624)

At least for this example of this assertion as compared to any others which are invalid.

This rocks Hollywood (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15706643)

Just think about it..

Example:

Since there is no spoon^W law

and we all know that:

Judge Dredd is the law

we can conclude that: there is no Judge Dredd*

* not that this isn't a bad thing :P

sample too small (1, Interesting)

CJSlim2001 (988471) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706644)

One of my hypothesis from high school was that all of the "laws" we've found to be true for our planet, may not hold true when applied arcoss the universe. The problem is that we're observing too small of a sample size. Our planet is a mere spec when compared to the total of all masses in existance.

Chances are, the laws we now know are correct... but only when applied to our planet. The displacement caused by the earth is what gives us gravity. Should the displacement of the Earth be altered by either adding or subtracting large amounts of high density molecules, then the gravity would also shift. The laws of science will only hold true when the variables being measures are the same. ie - The speed that light travels given our displacement will yield different results than the speed light travels when given a different displacement (namely, a quazar).

Is the sky blue?

Yes.

Why?

(source [sciencemadesimple.com] ) [quote] The blue color of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering. As light moves through the atmosphere, most of the longer wavelengths pass straight through. Little of the red, orange and yellow light is affected by the air. However, much of the shorter wavelength light is absorbed by the gas molecules. The absorbed blue light is then radiated in different directions. It gets scattered all around the sky. Whichever direction you look, some of this scattered blue light reaches you. Since you see the blue light from everywhere overhead, the sky looks blue.[/quote]

Yet if we were to observe the same sky from outer space, the same princinple does not apply. Now the sky is blue because you are looking down on many large bodies of water.

Perception is 9/10 of reality.

Six More Dimensions! (1)

Van Cutter Romney (973766) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706668)

The laws of physics would have to be rewritten, not to mention we might need to make room for six more spatial dimensions than the three that we are used to.

Somehow, I'm not able to straight now! Why is everything around me just a blur?

Oh, there are my glasses...

Sod's Law? (3, Funny)

owlnation (858981) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706677)

I'm guessing that we can still count on Murphy's Law?

Not Right! (1)

NIK282000 (737852) | more than 8 years ago | (#15706757)

This just isn't right! They changed the results by observing them!
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