Quasar Study Suggests a Physics Constant Isn’t so Constant

By Joseph Calamia | September 10, 2010 5:08 pm

quasarAfter analyzing light coming from distant quasars, some researchers have asked a physical constant a blunt question: Are you really constant at all? And since the “fine structure constant” that they’re interrogating is important for how physicists understand things like electrons’ behavior in atoms and fusion in stars, other physicists are asking their own question: Are your measurements correct?

The paper, which appeared last month in arXiv, argues that the constant might vary depending on location. This controversial claim is a new twist on a previous controversial claim–made over the past decade by some of the same physicists–which said that the constant varied with time.

Craig Hogan of the University of Chicago and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., acknowledges that “it’s a competent team and a thorough analysis.” But because the work has such profound implications for physics and requires such a high level of precision measurements, “it needs more proof before we’ll believe it.” [Science News]

Because the constant determines how atoms absorb light, researchers looked at how distant gas clouds in space appeared to absorb the quasars’ light. The light they get from these far away clouds has traveled for billions of years to reach them and therefore is a means to look into the universe’s past. Some of the same researchers previously argued, using observations from the Keck telescope in Hawaii, that the constant was smaller when the universe was younger. Now, measurements from a different telescope seem to say it was larger in the past.

Today, John Webb at the University of South Wales, one of the leading proponents of the varying constant idea, and a few [colleagues] say they have new evidence from the Very Large Telescope in Chile that the fine structure constant was different when the universe was younger. But get this. While data from the Keck telescope indicate the fine structure constant was once smaller, the data from the Very Large Telescope indicates the opposite, that the fine structure constant was once larger. [Technology Review]

Now for the twist. Since the Keck observations measured light in the Northern Hemisphere while the Very Large Telescope measures light from the Southern, the two results together suggest that the constant varies with location. The difference is small, the researchers note, and apparently only varied during the first several billion years of the universe’s life. Still, Paul Davies of Arizona State University says that if correct the find could mean questions for other fundamentals.

If the fine-structure constant really does vary in both space and time, says Davies, it’s an obvious extension that other presumed constants of nature–such as the gravitational constant that determines the strength of the gravitational force–might vary in a similar lopsided manner. “If we can accept a varying fine-structure constant, then all bets are off.” [Science News]

Despite the constant’s importance and the fact that changing the rules of physics would be a mite confusing for everybody, coauthor Michael Murphy of Swinburne University in Australia declares that it’s his job to test assumptions:

[Murphy] understands the caution. But he says the evidence for changing constants is piling up. “We just report what we find, and no one has been able to explain away these results in a decade of trying,” Murphy told New Scientist. “The fundamental constants being constant is an assumption. We’re here to test physics, not to assume it.” [New Scientist]

Related content:
80beats: Far-Off Quasar Could Be the Spark That Ignites a Galaxy
80beats: Researchers Spot an Ancient Starburst from the Universe’s Dark Ages
80beats: How to Create a Black Hole on a Lab Bench
80beats: We Knew That Black Holes Were Massive. Now Double That.
DISCOVER: Quasars Say Earth is 1/2 a Pinkie Smaller

Image credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: arXiv, cosmology, light, math, physics
  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    Meh, you have to have an overwhelming amount of data and replication to overturn a “constant,” we’ll see how this plays out over the coming years.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLindsay9 CW

    Rhac said it best. We need more evidence and confirmation.

    And check out Rhac’s blog too.

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    If radiation spatial/propagation is not constant to all observers then experimentally proved Conservation, interchangeability & Equivalency Historic Laws are metaphysical fabrications of delusionary minds-the entire physics is then false…

  • scribbler

    One says it’s small and the other says it’s big and they call that confirmation???

    Seems to me that it would be an indication to find the statistical anomoly…

    Unless of course these findings are varified by other observations.

    It’s certainly too early to make any conclusions, in my opinion. If, and that’s a big if, this is confirmed, might this then be the smoking gun for directionality in the big bang?

  • http://codevanced.net Andrew Kazyrevich

    Lubas Motl is quite skeptical about this (http://motls.blogspot.com/2010/09/variable-fine-structure-constant-is.html)

    80beats, what’s your personal opinion? Do you agree that “..the evidence for changing constants is piling up” – and if yes, then why?

  • scribbler

    Um, let me fine tune this a bit…

    The Keck, facing North says the constant is smaller and the VLT facing South says it is larger: Do they then agree at East and West???

    Doesn’t it follow that if there is a shift in the constant from North to South that as you went South from due North it would increase until it met at due East and West and the inverse for South to North?

  • Chris Winter

    I may regret posting this, since I haven’t read the article thoroughly. But just off the top of my head: Northern hemisphere… southern hemisphere… winter… summer… Could this have anything to do with the recent — and equally speculative — announcement of the hypothesis that neutrinos modulate the rate of radioactive decay? That allegedly varies from winter to summer.

  • Brian Too

    Yeah, overturning the principal of universality of physical laws is going to take multiple lines of evidence, from multiple teams, with no contradictory results.

    It takes real cohones to suggest that “Since the Keck observations measured light in the Northern Hemisphere while the Very Large Telescope measures light from the Southern, the two results together suggest that the constant varies with location.” That would be a speculation piled upon an aggressive interpretation of the data.

    Here’s an alternate interpretation: Instrument bias and 2 studies that came to opposite conclusions. Over an unlikely hypothesis.

    Fortunately the results are verifiable. There are lots of large scopes around these days, with more coming all the time. Different teams will attempt to replicate using different equipment and methodologies. Then and only then will we have any idea whether we need to take these results seriously, and whether there is any pattern to the mismatched results.

    Otherwise we wind up in the realm of consumer product research. “Butter is bad!” “No, butter is good!” “Margarine is good!” “Wait, we meant margarine is bad!” “Today we wish to amend our previous retraction concerning the merits of oil-based bread spreads!”

  • http://www.cosmology-particles.pl Sylwester Kornowski

    The physical constants are constant. There is wrong interpretation of the running couplings. For example, the fine-structure constant (it is about 1/137.036) describing the electromagnetic interactions depends on mass of the virtual electron-positron pairs. I calculated this value from the properties of the Newtonian spacetime (I calculated also the other physical constants – accuracy of the obtained results is very, very high). Why the coupling constant for the electromagnetic interactions of the colliding very energetic protons is greater than the fine-structure constant? It is because due to the internal structure of the nucleons there appear new phenomena – there appear electron-positron pairs having mass about 9 times greater than the resting electron-positron pairs. The fine-structure constant associated with creation of the resting electron-positron pairs has always the same value.

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    Thanks for the plug CW, I appreciate it.

  • http://www.cosmology-particles.pl Sylwester Kornowski

    Within the Everlasting Theory, I calculated with very high accuracy the physical constants from properties of the Newtonian spacetime. For example, these calculations lead to conclusion that the fine-structure constant is proportional to five third power of the mass density of the Einstein spacetime (in the ground state it is field composed of the non-rotating binary systems of neutrinos) – see formulae (15)-(21). To obtain for the fine-structure constant the observed maximal change about 10^-5, the maximal change of the density of the Einstein spacetime should be about 10^-3. Such changes were possible ONLY just at the beginning of the big bang because evolution of the object before big bang shows that there were produced protuberances in the Einstein spacetime – see the chapter ‘New Cosmology’ (pages 50-65). The protuberances on surface of our very early Universe led to very high redshift for quasars. The protuberances produced regions in the Einstein spacetime with increased or decreased mass density in comparison with its mean mass density. It means that all measurements for the quasars with very high redshift, i.e. from the Keck telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope, can be correct.

  • http://www.cosmology-particles.pl Sylwester Kornowski

    New Cosmology
    The Everlasting Theory shows that the protogalaxies composed of the biggest neutron stars (they are the neutron black holes) existed already before the big bang. These protogalaxies assembled into larger structures, visible today, also already before the big bang due to the four-neutrino symmetry following from the long distance gravitational interactions of the weak charges of neutrinos. This theory starts from the four phase transitions of the Newtonian spacetime – it is gas composed of the structureless tachyons. First phase transition leads to my closed strings, second to the ground state of the Einstein spacetime (it is field composed of the non-rotating binary systems of neutrinos), third to the cores of baryons whereas the fourth to the objects before big bang suited to life. The neutrinos, cores of baryons and the objects before the big bangs suited to life look similarly as, for example, the NGC 4261 galaxy i.e. there is ‘point’ mass in centre of torus/ring. The surfaces of the tori look similarly to the W. Ketterle surface for a strongly interacting gas (MIT). The evolution of the objects before the big bangs leads to the dark matter and dark energy. The radius of the sphere filled with the baryonic matter is indeed equal to about 13.5 billion light years whereas the Universe is about 20.7 billion years old.
    The entangled photons produced by the quasars (quasars are the first stage of evolution of the protogalaxies) decayed to the binary systems of the photon galaxies about 7.5 billion years and to the photon galaxies about 15 billion years since the beginning of the big bang. It means that brightness of the cosmic objects considerably increased about 20.7-7.5=13.2 and 20.7-15=5.7 billion years ago. Radiation of quasars is partially not due to a black body. It suggests that this radiation (it consisted of the big entangled photons) was absorbed by the nearby gas and emitted about 13.2 billion years ago (i.e. about 7.5 billion years since the beginning of the big bang) and later due to the decays of the entangled photons. From it follows that we should see today the first stage of evolution of the quasars placed in distance about 13.2 billion light years and shorter. The quasars with low redshift arose in the collisions of galaxies. Emission lines of hydrogen, helium, oxygen and iron (of carbon and magnesium also) are the brightest lines – it suggests also that the new cosmology is correct.

    The second flare up of the Universe leads to the illusion of acceleration of expansion of the Universe about 5.7 billion years ago.

  • Richard Dowd

    This may be a litle off topic, but it has been said that nobody has derived the fine structure constant from a deductive argument. Eddington thought that it was possible. To see a derivation by deduction go to:


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