Thursday, September 16, 2010

Looks Like a Cosmic Constant - Isn't

"New Physics? Fundamental Cosmic Constant Now Seems Shifty" (September 14, 2010)

"A fundamental constant of the universe may not be so constant after all, according to a new study.

"Recent observations of distant galaxies suggest that the strength of the electromagnetic force – the so-called fine-structure constant – actually varies throughout the universe. In one direction, the constant seemed to grow larger the farther astronomers looked; in another direction the constant took on smaller values with greater distance.

"If confirmed, this revelation could reshape physicists' understanding of cosmology from the ground up. It may even help solve a major conundrum: Why are all the constants of nature perfectly tuned for life to exist?..."

The article tells how researchers measured the electromagnetic force (also called the fine-structure constant or the alpha constant) in distant galaxies - it has to do with how parts of atoms in known substances act.

What's downright odd isn't so much that the electromagnetic force changes as you observe more and more distant galaxies. Astronomers and astrophysicists have come to grips with the idea that the universe started at a particular point, and has been expanding ever since. Since light takes time to get to us, those distant galaxies appear as they were, millions or billions of years ago. Looking into (very) deep space is like looking into the past. The galaxies were closer together then, than they are now, for one thing.

What's - odd - is that the electromagnetic force gets stronger, the deeper in space (and time) the astronomers look. In in one direction. In the opposite direction, the electromagnetic force gets weaker, the deeper they look.

That's - odd.

So That's Why There's No Intergalactic Empire?

Earth can support life - and has done so for the last several billion years. We've been finding life's component parts - 'building blocks' is a favorite journalistic phrase for them - on other planets and moons - and spread between stars.

I read a book whose authors seemed determined to demonstrate that life was well-nigh impossible. According to them, the existence of life on this planet probably didn't exist. (August 13, 2009) My guess is that their arguments aren't - quite - as solid as the book makes them appear to be.

On the other hand, we're not up to our hips in the space-alien equivalent of discarded oil drums and six-pack rings: and that has to be accounted for, in considering what the universe as a whole is like.

Assuming that today's interpretations of observations of the alpha constant are correct - and that's an assumption that's going to be discussed by researchers now that the word's out - it looks like our Milky Way galaxy may be in a particularly nice part of the universe.

"...[University of New South Wales' researcher Victor] Flambaum said he was particularly interested in what the result could tell scientists about the origin of life.

" 'This is a puzzle which has existed for many years,' he told 'A minor variation of the fundamental constants forbids life to appear – we just could not exist.'

"For Flambaum and others, it seemed like too much of a coincidence that the universe's constants – which includes the alpha constant and others like the value of the strength of gravity, or the strength of the strong interaction that binds atomic nuclei together – should be perfect for building stars and planets and life.

" 'Now we have an explanation,' Flambaum said.'If fundamental constants vary in space, we just appear in the area of the universe where constants are good for us.'

"In other regions of the universe where the constants are different, life may be absent, he said...."

Over the last few centuries we've noticed a few regularities in the way the universe works. We've also had to change a few assumptions along the way. The latest discussion of the alpha constant (or not-so-constant) reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

" 'Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws....' "
(Grace Ironwood, Chapter 17.4, "That Hideous Strength" C. S. Lewis (1946))
(I've used this quote in A Catholic Citizen in America, too. (November 30, 2009) Like I said: it's one of my favorites.)

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