Disturbance in the Force – A Spatially Varying Fine Structure Constant

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016


In order for astronomers to explore the outer reaches of our universe, they rely upon the assumption that the physical constants we observe in the lab on Earth are physically constant everywhere in the universe. This assumption seems to hold up extremely well. If the universe’s constants were grossly different, stars would fail to shine and galaxies would fail to coalesce. Yet as far we we look in our universe, the effects which rely on these physical constants being constant, still seem to happen. But new research has revealed that one of these constants, known as the fine structure constant, may vary ever so slightly in different portions of the universe.

Of all physical constants, the fine structure constant seems like an odd one to be probing with astronomy. It appears in many equations involving some of the smallest scales in the universe. In particular, it is used frequently in quantum physics and is part of the quantum derivation of the structure of the hydrogen atom. This quantum model determines the allowed energy levels of electrons in the atoms. Change this constant and the orbitals shift as well.

Since the allowed energy levels determine what wavelengths of light such an atom can emit, a careful analysis of the positioning of these spectral lines in distant galaxies would reveal variations in the constant that helped control them. Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Keck Observatory, a team from the University of New South Whales has analyzed the spectra of 300 galaxies and found the subtle changes that should exist if this constant was less than constant.

Since the two sets of telescopes used point in different directions (Keck in the Northern hemisphere and the VLT in the Southern), the researchers noticed that the variation seemed to have a preferred direction. As Julian King, one of the paper’s authors, explained, “Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha.”

However, “it varies by only a tiny amount — about one part in 100,000 — over most of the observable universe”. As such, although the result is very intriguing, it does not demolish our understanding of the universe or make hypotheses like that of a greatly variable speed of light plausible (an argument frequently tossed around by Creationists). But, “If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

While this finding doesn’t challenge our knowledge of the observable universe, it may have implications for regions outside of the portion of the universe we can observe. Since our viewing distance is ultimately limited by how far we can look back, and that time is limited by when the universe became transparent, we cannot observe what the universe would be like beyond that visible horizon. The team speculates that beyond it, there may be even larger changes in this constant which would have large effects on physics in such portions. They conclude the results may, “suggest a violation of the Einstein Equivalence Principle, and could infer a very large or in finite universe, within which our `local’ Hubble volume represents a tiny fraction, with correspondingly small variations in the physical constants.”

This would mean that, outside of our portion of the universe, the physical laws may not be suitable for life making our little corner of the universe a sort of oasis. This could help solve the supposed “fine-tuning” problem without relying on explanations such as multiple universes.

Want some other articles on this subject? Here’s an article about there might be 10 dimensions.

19 Responses

  1. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Uncertain Principles have a take down of this, and it seems good to me. Essentially he observes that the points where the two telescopes overlap has zero drift. (Including one point that with one telescope has a huge drift!)

    So? They’re in the boundary region. It just seems awfully convenient that the difference they see is so well correlated with the specific telescope they used. There’s no particular reason why the changing constant should align with the location of observatories on our fairly insignificant little planet.

    So, this is likely inconclusive after all (what say the experts?), and more observation is needed.

  2. Don Alexander says:

    I’m very keen to know how they ruled out detector biases… They are using two different instruments (I assume HIRES on Keck and UVES on VLT) to perform measurements, which gives the inherent problem that they aren’t perfectly comparable. I’m not sure how they are deriving the FSC, but my first guess would be the comparison of lines from different ionization states of the same element. Measuring the wavelngths extremely precisely depends on calibrating the spectra with at least as much precision, dealing with instrument flexure etc.

  3. Jon Voisey says:

    The original paper: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1008/1008.3907v1.pdf

    It discusses the deriving the FSC in the first paragraph in the sentence starting with “The relative positions of wavenumbers…”. I’d quote it, but the use of special characters doesn’t let me.

    They discuss the ruling our of systematic errors like what you discussed in the section beginning on page 4 entitled “Empirical test for systematics”

  4. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    I might be wrong, but there are sometimes things which appear in the literature which I prefer to wait on. Time is limited and I can only study so much. There are papers out these days on solar dependency on radioactive decay, and that I’ll wait on as well. Some things just don’t make much sense right off, and not in a strange or profound way, but in a comical way. My bet is about the same here, for this is not something that makes much sense, nor does it point to a change in our world view in some new and deep way. This will probably burn off like the morning fog. Of course I might be wrong, for it is hard to judge things.

    I can’t refute this paper by myself, but there are a couple of things which seem apparent. The authors state, “This asymmetry in the two hemispheres – dubbed the “Australian dipole” by the researchers – has a statistical significance of about four sigma. This means that there is only a one in 15,000 chance that it is a random event.” My sense is that they did not examine p-values to determine if there is some instrumentation bias. Further a Bayesian regression needs to be run to determine if the null hypothesis on this is correct.


  5. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Oops, forgot that this was about absolute shifts, not drift over time, so substitute where appropriate in my previous comment.

  6. Don Alexander says:

    – Paper is submitted to Physical Review Letters, a very good journal.
    – Paper is SUBMITTED only so far, can still be trashed.
    – Lots of self-references, which is always a bit sketchy.
    – They obviously have acess to a lot of observing time on large facilities, BUT they only refer to papers in preparation concerning the new UVES data set, so they may be piggybacking on “normal” quasar studies.

  7. My learned and esteemed colleagues, dear faculty, ladies, gentlemen.

    THE EARTH HAS GIANT EARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Ah, submitted for review, good. I still can’t square its substantial discussion of systematic errors with Orzel’s analysis, it shouldn’t be that easy to find a correlation with the instruments!?

  9. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

    *cough* At the third paragraph, in the fourth line, it should be Wales, not “Whales” — which are marine mammals. 🙂

  10. SteveZodiac says:

    Well spotted Ivan3man Cymru Am Byth.
    It does seem suspicious that the anisotropy is bipolar. Maybe they have discovered something else that will end up being even more important.

  11. SteveZodiac says:

    Urgh did I say bipolar, I meant dipole (blush)

  12. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    SteveZodiac, thanks. More observations then, everyone seems good with that.

  13. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Btw, meant to add that bipolar is fine here IMH layman O, it’s somewhat fuzzy concepts anyway (say, for dipoles outside of actual field lobes).

  14. mick says:

    Could this be some weird effect from relativity ? (drag effect / tiny gravity changes / …)

  15. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    It has to be remembered there is a dipole specturm of the CMB due to the motion of the Earth around the sun, which is superposded on the motion of the sun with respect to the galaxy and the motion of the Milky Way with respect to the local group and so forth. These are many factiors which could cause instrument bias, some of which naturally occur.

    This result honestly just does not make much sense. It is a bit much to think the fine structure constant varies with time, but this sort of spatial variation seems horribly wrong.


  16. jimhenson says:

    A varying fine-structure constant is supported by string theory with 10 or 26 dimensions. Alpha has no units and is independent of any measurement system. “The dimensionless numbers are far more important then any of the dimensional constants” says Michael Murphy…”this includes Newton’s Gravitational constant, which could vary over three-dimensional space-time because they’re reflections of higher dimensional happenings.” The dipole model of a changing alpha is along different directions where the strength varies in space and time. Already we know that light speed is not a constant c=186,000 mps, because it slows down about 5,000 mps passing through liquid water, and has been slowed to a stop in the lab. Light speed is dependent on the density of the media here on earth. Inconstant constants hurts the big-bang model because inflation cannot explain the flatness of the universe. If the dark flow is causing alpha to change, then the big-bang model is wrong, and Kashlinksky may be correct in predicting a huge black hole about 150 billion light years away. Beyond the visible horizon, anything is up for grabs when it comes to new laws of physics that are different then the laws known here including Einstein’s relativity.

  17. Surak says:

    I haven’t read the paper, but from what I’ve read on other sites and from interviews etc. The authors spent 6 years trying to prove themselves wrong, assessing every kind of bias they could think of. The CMB dipole does not line up with this, nor do some other dipoles, but they hinted that this roughly lines up with Dark Flow.

    The other sources i read said a 1 in 1,000,000 difference, this article says 1 in 100,000.

    Oh and as usual New Scientist screwed it up, really pushing the fine-tuning fallacy, and assuming that their readers have no concept of the difference between 1 in 1,000,000 (or 100,000) and the 4% difference in the fine structure constant that they state would render life to be impossible.

    Woooo it’s so fine tuned! because if the variation, was only 40,000x (or 4,000x) bigger we wouldnt exist! blah.

  18. RUF says:

    Methinks “bi-polar” is right.

    The world is bi-polar.

  19. jimhenson says:

    There cannot be a model of the universe involving mathematics that is anywhere near to the truth of ultimate reality, if the four forces of nature vary in strength because alpha varies. All the presumed constants are based on mathematics and measurements. if the physics of the universe change in space and time, all that is left to study might be black holes, as the ultimate reality? Varying constants means in different places throughout the universe, galaxies might not form, because magnetism might be too strong. BLAH BLAH ? Would they rather study local illusion or the universe? I’m committed to studying more then anything else, the rough dark flow dipolar alpha alignment with the varying fine-structure constant direction. It seems far more important to me then the CMB dipole and big-bang theory, because all of it is derived from the fundamental dimensionless fine-structure constant. The planck speed too will vary with changes in alpha, meaning that matter and light will not interact in the same way we are familiar with. my conclusions seem to indicate that black holes have infinite size scales that all interact thru event horizons that destroy information and brings it back from the past. Size fools more cosmologists then anything else because they cannot all agree to what the universe actually is. They need to go back and compare atoms to stars to galaxies to superclusters to superduperclusters to not establishing a maximum size of organized matter, which includes the universe! The concept alone called introspective meditation will reveal the theory of everything better then anything I’ve ever found in science. Sizes and numbers are dimensions like the one and the many black holes surely the largest black hole discovered is just a speck of insignificance when you zoom out away from it. and the tiny speck when you zoom in becomes so large that if you could slow down time you might discover planets and even things living before they become annihilated.

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