Fringe: What Happens If the Universal Constants Aren't Constant?

By Eric Wolff | May 21, 2009 12:17 pm

gateway425.jpgIt’s a constant on SciNoFi that we do one post per episode of a given show. But as we all now know from watching the unexpectedly epic season finale of Fringe last week, constants can change, universes collide, and worlds are as multitudinous as the stars in the sky. And really, none of that was a spoiler.

But this whole question of varying physical constants has been roiling the scientific community for years, especially the astrophysicists who really have their telescopic fingers on the cosmic pulse of the question. As all of us who ever took a high school sicen class know, physical constants are crucial to making a great many descriptive equations actually work.  In Einstein’s E=mc2, the c is the constant, it’s the speed of light. Then there’s the Planck constant, Avogadro’s number, and on and on. But if those numbers suddenly turned out to be changing, then how would the equations still work? Would science be broken?

Actually, my fellow Discover blogger Sean, over at Cosmic Variance, linked to a paper last year that found that stars, at the very minimum, could exist in as many as 25 percent of potential universes with fundamental constants ranging all over the place. And scientists figure that with stars comes at least the possibility of life as we know it. (See more on the topic in the recent Discover feature, “A Scientist’s Guide to Finding Alien Life.”) That leaves the door open for Fringe‘s “soft spots”, where the physical constants are ever so slightly different.

As it happens, there’s some evidence—though it’s highly disputed—that the constants of physics have been changing over time, albeit very slowly. In 2001, physicist John Webb of the University of New South Wales in Australia argued that evidence from surveys of distant quasars suggested that certain physical constants have changed over the course of billions of years. Specifically, the change was one part in 100,000 for every 12 billion years. Since then, scientists have been trying to add evidence to this idea, with mixed success. In 2004, Jeff Newman from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, wasn’t able to show evidence of the change.

The problem with a change that small and over so much time is it’s very difficult to measure in just one moment (like “now”). But in 2006, some physicists realized that instead of looking at distant quasars, they might examine a phenomenon much closer to home: an atomic clock. By comparing the American NIST-F1 atomic clock, which relies on radiation from cesium atoms to keep time (the clock loses one second every 80 billion years), to the European hydrogen-based clock, scientists discovered that there may actually be a small amount of drift between each “tick” of the clock. They say that this possible drift could be further evidence of extremely minuscule changes in the constants of nature.

Some theoretical models for a grand unified field theory actually predict this kind of violation of the constants in order to reconcile the different equations.

In the meantime, have maybe we should consider asking Leonard Nimoy what he knows? He seems to be up on this sort of thing.

MORE ABOUT: Fringe, Leonard Nimoy, TV

Comments (10)

Links to this Post

  1. The Mole Project | | June 25, 2011
  1. Sicen wasn’t offered at my high school until several years after I graduated.

  2. I would say that the time frame involved in the changes is such that we don’t need to cover our heads and cry, The Sky is Falling :)

  3. Of course, if the Planck constant really does change over time, maybe we should start calling it the Planck variable? Just saying.

  4. It is interesting to note that, as far as I recall, the idea of time evolution of the fundamental constants dates back to Paul Dirac.

  5. The physical constants are a good topic for relative quantum science. RQT functions giving topological waveparticle imaging by inclusion of quantized symmetry display picoyoctometric energy particles of the atom’s 5/2 kT J energy cloud with exact 3D animated video particle models for the constants: h, h-bar, delta, nuclear magneton, beta magneton. Their sizes are determined by their components, which are forcons, and may vary by slight changes of the Q4 quantum of which forcons are built. Images of the h-bar and other basic energy waveparticles are available online at: | |.

  6. stanzin

    if the value of plancks constants are varied,the change in the value of other phenomeon in the nature will occur simultaneously.

  7. Rico Oldfield

    Here’s a notion! If change were a universal constant, would there be any such thing as a universal constant?

  8. jozy

    If change were constant, then we could predict the change rate, and make a sort of constant-change-constant. Right? (Make sense?) Like acceleration in motion…

  9. Hello, I just found your site and this article helped me a lot, thanks. Simply want to say your article is as tonishing.


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