What if the constants we take for granted are not really constant?
Seems like every time we learn something new, whether it is in biology or cosmology, we learn something else that just makes us sit back and say Wow. So it is with a recent story in The Economist about new information regarding one of the universal “constants” alpha.
Alpha characterizes the strength of the force between electrically charged particles. As such, it governs—among other things—the energy levels of an atom formed from negatively charged electrons and a positive nucleus. Alpha has a value of 1/137.036. If it were a mere 4% bigger or smaller than it is, stars would not be able to sustain the nuclear reactions that synthesize carbon and oxygen. One minor consequence of this variation would be that carbon-based life would not exist.
Scientists have found evidence that alpha changes smoothly across a great arc from the northern to the southern skies—being smaller in one direction and larger in the other. If and when confirmation of this finding comes, it will disprove one of physics greatest canons: physical laws are the same everywhere.
So the questions arise: Do we live in a pocket of the sky that is fine-tuned just for us? And just how much more complicated and mysterious is our universe than we can even imagine?
If that knocked your socks off, take a look at our next cool topic: Model hurricanes. And if you want to peruse all of the previous sock-knocking blog entries, visit the Knocked My Socks Off archive. (links to another blog site)
The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe: Ye cannae change the laws of physics: Or can you? The Economist. http://www.economist.com/node/16930866. Published August 31, 2010. Accessed September 07, 2010.