Fine Structure Constant ain’t constant?

What an interesting week so far! First a suggestion that we need to relax the Copernican Principle. Then a scientific test for the existence of Free Will. Now experimental evidence that a fundamental constant of Physics changes with time and location in the Universe.

The Fine Structure Constant is a measure of the coupling strength of the Electo-Magnetic field. It’s roughly equal to 1/137. It’s been measured to less than one part in a billion. It’s very well observered. It’s been of interest to physicists for a long time because of its nearly integer form. That fact has been linked often to Dirac’s Large Number Hypothesis.

So the news this morning that research into the fine structure constant at the cosmological scale is showing a spread of values is a big deal. Apparently a telescope in the northern hemisphere looking at one side of the Universe is seeing one value and another telescope looking in another direction is seeing a different value.

“This means that in one direction, the fine structure constant was once smaller and in exactly the opposite direction, it was once bigger. And here we are in the middle, where the constant as it is (about 1/137.03599…)

That’s a mind blowing result. One of the biggest conundrums that cosmologists face is explaining why the fundamental constants of nature seem fine tuned for life. If the fine structure constant were very different, stars and atoms wouldn’t form and the universe as we know it couldn’t exist. No theory explains why it takes the value it does which leaves scientists at a loss.

The implication from Webb and co’s data is that the fine structure constant is continuously varying throughout space and is merely fine-tuned for life in this corner of the cosmos: the universe’s habitable zone. Elsewhere, presumably well beyond the universe we can see, this constant is entirely different.”

Read the full article here.

There’s another implication. If the value is different in one direction than another, it mean’s this is an experimental proof that the Copernican principle needs to be redone. Because, the fact that we happen to live in a region of space-time in which the fine structure constant is tuned to allow life to arise, then we can legitimately claim to be “special”.

Ugh. It’s fine to be special and all, but if physics doesn’t work the same everywhere, it means there’s going to have be some fundamental philosophical reevaluations made.

Where’s Karl Popper when we need him?

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...