Either Some Physical Constants are Relative or Some Astronomers May Need to Recalibrate Their Telescopes; Either Way, Your Author Needs a New Weekly Planner

Things have a funny way of working out.  The author was in transit to campus for a routine visit to the doctor today.  (He knew he was late; what he didn’t know was that he had the wrong day.)  What came of this was exposure to one of those radical ideas that seem to go to work right away, weighing the rest of one’s premises and assumptions.

The problem is that the author won’t know how the article changed his perspective until the subtle observed effect is independently-verified.

The September 4th-10th issue of The Economist was lying on the seat on the bus, folded back so the lead article in the Science and Technology section was facing up.  The article’s title can only be read in a thick Scottish accent: “Ye Cannae Change the Laws of Physics.”  The article is about the fine-structure constant.

This constant, which is really a crucial proportion among other constants, is referred to as “alpha” in physics.  (That is a term worth remembering, if only because it will return in a future post in a very different context.)  It is also referred to as the “coupling constant” because it is the measure of the strength at which opposing electric charges attract (or like electric charges repel).  The point is that the values among constants which produce this fraction are necessary determinants of the physical structure of the Universe (the charge of an electron, the speed of light which doesn’t even vary if you move towards or away from its source, and Planck’s constant below which a mass may exhibit both particle and wave properties).  The Economist article refers to a draft astrophysics paper by research astronomers John Webb and Julian King which argues that the fine-structure constant has a different value in different parts of the Universe.  No, the authors aren’t arguing that it had a different value in the past (as some of you well know that light from deep space that reaches Earth was first emitted billions of years in the past), but that it actually has a different value in other parts of the Universe right now.  They concluded this after comparing observations with the Keck Observatory telescope in Hawai’i and a very large telescope in Chile called the Very Large Telescope.  The spectral patterns they observed of X-ray-emitting quasars 9 billion light-years distant from the Keck Observatory suggested that the value of the fine-structure constant was .0006% smaller then; those taken from the Very Large Telescope, looking nearly the other side of the Universe, were almost correspondingly larger.

This finding is electrifying–perhaps literally depending on your velocity, but figuratively if you’re a nerd and wonder about things like the nature of reality (or at least about the nature of science if you are an ironist).  Superficially it seems to suggest that even the laws of nature are relative.  That can’t really be right, though; if the value of the fine-structure constant actually increases from one side of the Universe to the other, the explanation would have to involve higher dimensions or something else that only makes sense mathematically but that accommodates the limits of observable reality.  But that was when a subtler sense of awe hit me: Webb and King may have found a way that the laws of nature are shaped by a realm we can never experience and which we only know about conjecturally, relatively and mathematically.

The Liberal Ironist isn’t in physics, however–and it may turn out he has no right to feel excited over such an abstract finding.

This evening, the author sang in a choir–seated next to a Ph.D candidate in the Physics Department.  When asked about the fine-structure constant, he paused, actually guessed why I was asking about this, and sighed.  “…I don’t buy it,” he said.  “So far, they’ve based this conclusion upon observations from 2 telescopes–both based on the Earth.  There could just be diverging systematic errors in the 2 telescopes they’ve used.  Until they’re able to compare both sets of observations with those from a 3rd telescope in space (which I think would have to be Hubble), I am not accepting that the fine-structure constant changes over distance.

“This is the sort of thing that happens when current science research gets out to a broader public: The journalist writing the story takes 1 academic paper that conjectures a theory…and writes about it as if it were true,” he concluded somewhat-wistfully.  (It should be added that 6 of the quasars Webb and King observed were overlapping observations between the Keck Observatory and the Very Large Telescope, so they have had some opportunity to compare pairs of spectral readings for measurement error.)

So, there you have it: This could be one of the greatest discoveries in physics, or it could be one of the greatest cases of the telephone game of contemporary journalism.  In either case, the Liberal Ironist has learned a lesson to give him pause, all because he went in for a doctor’s appointment late, and on the wrong day.

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4 thoughts on “Either Some Physical Constants are Relative or Some Astronomers May Need to Recalibrate Their Telescopes; Either Way, Your Author Needs a New Weekly Planner

  1. Maria Dimitriu

    Well, there’s much truth in the saying that people make a small discovery and then published it as true although they’re seldom close to the “truth.” I guess we could talk about what truth is… Is “truth” more true because it’s attached to a hard science (i.e. physics) or is it the case that philosophers are closer to the truth although they don’t spend nights in front of a telescope. Or is it that the two categories copy each other? Physicists are expanding on basic philosophical truths and philosophers adjust their metaphysics after another “truth” comes out in the quantum physics field.

    Personally, I’m not shocked that they found a “constant” to be variable not only at different points in time but at different points in space. Perhaps that’s going to lead to a change in focus from the concept of time to that of space again. I think this is where we got it all wrong. I wouldn’t be that surprised to find out that space is folded to such an extent that what we see in a straight line is only a small fraction of all there is out there. If so, the constant might be variable because something else (in another point in space that falls outside our linear view) pulls it up or down. The logical consequence of the article is that besides alpha something else might be “cooking” in the pot. When something varies another undiscovered “constant” or equation could be introduced in there to make sense of it all.

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  2. liberalironist Post author

    Nietzsche related, in Book V, section 344 of The Gay Science, “In what way we, too, are still pious,” that he suspected science as an enterprise was an outgrowth of “the thousand-year old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, that truth is divine…” He pointed out that the scrutiny of nature for rational order isn’t precisely a “natural” human impulse, that science as a progressive enterprise has an actual pedigree and that it isn’t old relative to civilization.

    So, the study of physical order is motivated by a philosophical conceit that wasn’t inevitable, and philosophy in the English-speaking countries today is dominated by Analytical Philosophy which follows an extreme argumentative rigor and narrowness, a method imitative of modern science.

    That said, I can’t think of any reason not to distinguish, as postmoderns like Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty wouldn’t, between scientific claims which may be true because they have not been falsified, and cultural claims which may be true because we accept them in common. What they have in common is a provisional nature: If a new scientific theory makes more sense of the observational data (for example, concluding that one constant or another in the fine-structure constant is actually a variable influenced by phenomena in higher-dimensional space), then the old one will probably be abandoned for the new for this reason, and only for this reason. Obviously there is no such impersonal arbiter for cultural change, but if the old culture does not allow changing sentiments a mode of expression it spawns a counterculture; and if the old religion cannot edify and spiritually-discipline its adherents it will whither as a force in their lives, and sometimes die.

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  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Quants, Part I–How Many Hedge Funds Does It Take to Crash the Economy? | The Liberal Ironist

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