Monday, May 09, 2005

There will be a slight adjustment in reality, folks

Just when you thought the constants in physics were constant....
May 9. 2005


Getting particle physics into a newspaper ain’t easy, but sometimes it can be done. The remarkable Keay Davidson of the San Francisco Chronicle managed it today with an intriguing story about how the laws of physics may change over time. Or, they may not. Davidson writes that one of the fundamental values in physics, the “fine structure constant,” (alpha) which measures how subatomic particles interact with light and each other, may change very so slightly over the life of the universe. It turns out that some observations of very old quasars (like 12 billion years), have different dark lines in their spectra than what you would get from laboratory instruments. That would imply a change that is not supposed to happen. What the physicists are actually fighting about, however, is a bit more arcane: whose measurements are more accurate. Measurements came from the Keck telescope in Hawaii and from a natural uranium deposit in Gabon. The doubters to the theory--perhaps most physicists--are unimpressed by the measurements of the proponents which are detecting the changes. And even the proponents are a bit shy about making major assertions because of the implications. Laws of nature aren’t supposed to change. Does it matter? Well, actually, probably. One never knows. The fun part of theoretical physics is that one can’t predict what a discovery or theory will lead to. Think Einstein and television. If nothing else, it’s nice to shake up one’s view of reality. It’s also good to see serious science in a newspaper. It probably means no runaway bride, no more vitamins curing cancer in mice, or Paris Hilton was taking a day off. Oh, and remember how in "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" it was revealed that the meaning of life was 42. Wrong. It's 1/137.

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