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3. VARYING CONSTANTS Previous | Next

Destabilising our view of the universe

THE fundamental constants of physics are the numbers that describe just how strong the forces of nature are. Though every one of their values is derived from experiments, not from some fundamental understanding, they are nevertheless integral to what we call the laws of physics: the constants make the laws work when we use them to describe the processes of nature. And because we assume that the laws of physics are immutable, eternal – we have to assume the constants don’t change either. Which is why astronomer John Webb has got himself into such trouble.

In 1997 Webb’s team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. Something strange had happened to the light during the 12 billion years it took to cross the universe: its spectral composition, the different colours within the light, had changed. The only feasible explanation was that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value near the time the light started its journey.

Webb’s result has withstood a decade of testing and dispute, and we are getting hints that other constants might change too. The laws of physics might be rather more flexible than we thought. The physical laws and constants have helped us define and tame the natural world. But what if there are no immutable laws? What if the constants aren’t constant? Or, as Webb puts it, a wry smile playing across his lips, “Who decided they were constant, anyway?”

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Location:Lewes, UK

#1 - Posted: 25/07/2008 07:11

Here’s a thing: a book gets written and science moves on. I guess that’s the point of the site. In June a result came out in Science: rumours of the variation of one of the constants of nature may have been over-exaggerated, to paraphrase (badly) Mark Twain.

            The constant in question is mu, the ratio of the mass of the electron to the mass of the proton. It’s not definite that it’s not changing, but the balance of evidence says we’d better not trust the result that said it was. I’ve written about it here, so I won’t go back over the old ground. A report in Science is here. 

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#2 - Posted: 25/07/2008 09:19

Everything changes, at one time the earth was flat and the universe revolved around it. Science at any given time is our best guess, with all the currently available evidence.  There will always be differing opinions and only time can tell, the differing opinions allow us to think more freely about the possibilities,  which may not yet have been thought of.  If you are told there is only one solution you won't try and find the ten or more other possibilities.

Sometimes the incorrect conclusions from the past did help, such as disease was spread by smell, the 'smell' doesn't spread disease but their assumption led them to move waste and smelly things away from clean things such as water sources etc which was good for them, but may have limited any further thinking.

Surely as we increase the scale and granularity at which we can observe we will never stop learning, and changing our constants. I've heard that even Pi gets larger as we get more computing power to be able to define it to a higher number of decimal places.

I look forward to seeing the book.

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#3 - Posted: 10/08/2008 03:11

What do you people think about the information on this web page about criticism of special and general relativity?


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#4 - Posted: 14/08/2008 11:08

Shreee, the thing you have to remember about  special and general relativity is that it has been extraordinarily successful in its agreement with experimental predictions: gravitational lensing, timing corrections for satellites etc. I honestly don't believe in the conspiracy theory ideas that inconsistencies have been suppressed - there's no way you could pull that off for over a century. And science, for all its flaws, doesn't work that way. New students don't come through the system just building on what their professors have done: they start from scratch with the equations and so on - any inconsistency would show up time and again. The amount of work that would have to be done in order to keep everyone "in the know" quiet just doesn't make sense.

That's not to say there aren't issues with relativity (or at least our interpretation of it). We know that it's not the final answer because we're searching for a theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics. And the mention on that page of the ether is interesting too: there's something about the isotropy of space (that it's the same whichever way you look or travel) that might have to give - in some ways we're starting to think some anomalies might be resolved by backtrackin on that concept.

But, overall, I think Einstein - as far as he went - was right on the money!

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#5 - Posted: 14/08/2008 18:56

Shree -- you reference is to a non-science creationism source -- unfortunately these sources either distort known and well established facts (like the time dialation of velocity) or they outright lie about claims.

Unless you want to spend an eternity sorting out fact from fiction I would stay clear of these so-called 'sources.'  A certain disadvantage to people trying to disprove all of the creationism claime is that in order to access peer-reviewed scienticic data you must subscribe to Nature, or Physical Review Letters, etc.. Not an inexpensive task for non-students. The creationists rely on this to dupe the general public. tsk tsk

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#6 - Posted: 16/08/2008 18:10

michael, i believe your bio states that you are a journalist.  i take it that also means that you are not a physicist.  have you personally verified einsteins math.  are you sure that every physicist, or even most physicists, do verify the mathematical foundations of relativity for themselves.  i don't know if einstein is right or wrong, but for decades scientists have relied on the poorly-designed michelson-morley experiments which supposedly disproved the ether, but now it turns out that we may have to bring the either back in.  all knowledge is provisional knowledge.  there was nothing wrong with newton's math either, and his theories too had tremendous predictive value, except for the anomalous data it did not explain.  until a theory accounts for all the anomalies it remains provisional.

in medical school we had a little initialism that we wrote in a patients chart if the physical findings were ok, but we did not have time to spell it all out on paper.  we wrote WNL: within normal limits.  of course sometimes this was just a cover for our own laziness in not actually doing a thorough examination.  then the joke was WNL stood for "we never looked."  guess what, doctors aren't the only lazy ones.  once one sees just how much skullduggery exists in the halls of "science", one is not likely to be so trusting.



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