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.