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The structure of inconstant constants

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 13, 2011

We all know that the universe is a constantly changing entity but that underneath that apparent chaos is a fine-structure described and predicted by equations…equations whose foundation lay in the cosmic constants such as the speed of light, the charge of an electron or Plank’s constant. For those with a limited understanding of quantum mechanics, which should include everyone including myself, Plank’s constant is the smallest possible packet of energy (I am sure our physics leaning listeners will write in to correct my over simplification but we shall push on).

The expanding universe

In a peer reviewed paper about to be published in Physical Review Letters, Dr. John Webb et al are challenging this idea that the constants of the universe are truly constant. Now I know this sounds self-contradictory but one aspect of this is already accepted as legitimate, if not proven; that being the early inflationary universe. This is the fact that our universe is too big…let me step you through this. Based on our observations we know/believe the universe to be about 14 billion years old; we also know we can observe two points in the sky that are 14 billion light years from earth, and that each point is in an opposite direction (relative to the earth)… making their distance from each other 28 billion light years; we also know that ‘in the beginning’ these points were next to each other (ask a astrophysicist to explain the how)…see the problem? If the constants of the universe are constant, how do we explain how these points managed to travel at roughly twice the speed of light from each other? To explain this, scientist developed the theory of ‘inflation’ that held that the infant universe experienced a phase of rapid, ie faster than light, expansion; after this period the universe slowed to its current state.

The Fine Structure Constant

Now there are many explanations on the table as to how and why this expansion period happened but one of these comes from the observations presented by Dr. Webb. It is based on the idea of the Cosmic Fine Structure Constant. This is an “e=mc2” type equation that says when you combine some of the fundamental ‘constants’ of the universe they equal a TRULY constant constant…roughly 1 over 137.

Quasar observations

Evidence for spatial variation of the fine structure constant

How to measure slow or fast light

Now if you look at the data map Webb produced ( see above) you will see a mix of blue and pink points – blue being greater values pinks smaller values of the constants. Now DON’T PANIC!!! The variations are relatively small and observed at great distances (both in time and space), so will have little/no effect on us…in fact the differences are small enough that the basic actions of galaxies (ie building stars, planets, etc.) are not affected. However, it does allow for some interesting ideas such as slow light and fast light…that during the early universe we had fast light that allowed for the rapid inflationary period but later light became ‘slow’ to the speed we now know and love.

The multiverse

There are some cool extrapolations from Webb’s claims. First, we and others have talked about Bubble universes…that is when the Big Bang happened it did not create one universe but several. Another way to view this multiverse scenario is that the universe is infinitely large (infinite relative to human understanding) and that in points quite distant the constants are different…with regions having life like our own, others where matter cannot form.

Another interesting thing it could provide evidence for is String Theory. String Theory holds that there are several more dimensions than the three we experience but proving this is next to impossible (with our current understanding of the universe). However, if the Fine Structure Constant is actually a representation of a multidimensional constant, so that when we see light as it is, we are only seeing the 3 dimensional shadow of the real multidimensional property.  That is the Fine Structure Constant IS constant but what we see is only the shadow which from our perspective can change.  Think of the “FlatLand” thought experiment.

Now, why mention this on our show? Firstly it is cool and interesting but also it provides another nail in the anthropic argument for god. This “principle” holds that the odds of humans existing are so infinitesimally small it MUST and ONLY could have occurred because of the ‘manipulation’ of the universe by a creator…ie god. If the universe is infinite and the constants that make life possible vary, it is simply the law of probability that allows us to exist. To be a good skeptic of course, I have to point out that first this CLAIM, is extraordinary and will be a ‘paradigm’ shift in physics, cosmology…science and everything. As such, it requires extraordinary evidence…which it is far from achieving yet…early days but still interesting.



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