Science

Laws of physics may just be 'local by-laws'

Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)
Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)
View 2 Images
How a galaxy imprints a "barcode" of metallic absorption lines onto the spectrum of a background quasar – the barcode encodes the laws of physics in the distant, absorbing galaxy, so we can tell whether the laws of physics change throughout the universe, or really stay constant like is currently assumed (Image: Michael Murphy, Swinburne University of Technology; Hubble Ultra Deep Field: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team)
1/2
How a galaxy imprints a "barcode" of metallic absorption lines onto the spectrum of a background quasar – the barcode encodes the laws of physics in the distant, absorbing galaxy, so we can tell whether the laws of physics change throughout the universe, or really stay constant like is currently assumed (Image: Michael Murphy, Swinburne University of Technology; Hubble Ultra Deep Field: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team)
Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)
2/2
Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)

Star Trek’s Scotty was adamant that you “canna change the laws of physics,” but, according to a report from a team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England, that could be exactly what happens in different parts of the universe. The report describes how one of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all. Instead, this 'magic number' known as the fine-structure constant – 'alpha' for short – appears to vary throughout the universe.

“After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe,” Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.

“The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely 'local by-laws', it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it,” Webb added. “If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

The researchers' conclusions are based on new measurements taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, along with their previous measurements from the world’s largest optical telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Mr Julian King from the University of New South Wales explained how, after combining the two sets of measurements, the new result 'struck' them. "The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres – they look in different directions through the universe. 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."

"It varies by only a tiny amount – about one part in 100,000 – over most of the observable universe, but it's possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon," Mr King said.

The discovery will force scientists to rethink their understanding of Nature's laws. "The fine structure constant, and other fundamental constants, are absolutely central to our current theory of physics. If they really do vary, we'll need a better, deeper theory," Dr Michael Murphy from Swinburne University said. "While a 'varying constant' would shake our understanding of the world around us extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we're finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”

"It's one of the biggest questions of modern science – are the laws of physics the same everywhere in the universe and throughout its entire history? We're determined to answer this burning question one way or the other," Murphy said.

The team from the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge has submitted a report of the discovery for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. A preliminary version of the paper is currently under peer review.

14 comments
David Larson
like I\'ve been telling people. They aren\'t \"laws\" there more like suggestions......... keep going the way you\'re going, you find out..
Omer Qadir
It doesn\'t change the *laws* .... it only changes the *parameters* of the laws. The laws themselves remain the same.... which is a hypothesis that was put forward some time ago .... seems like they have got more evidence to support it now. scotty hasn\'t been proven wrong yet ! :-)
Charles Bosse
Sorry, I\'m not convinced. Are they really seeing variations through space, or through time? Big bang theory has proposed that some of the fundamental constants are changing through time already. Are they sure that this is not related to some already well established idea, like the expansion of the universe, or to some less established but still well known observation, like dark energy?
rr
Laws and rules in science are made to try to explain what happens in the universe. Thus the \"constants\" are measures in science to explain and calculate effects in the Universe. Unfortunately the Universe does not know anything which is constant as the Universe is moving and changing continuously and it is unlimited. Whenever we try to get the two scenes correlating we get convinced that we need new laws and rules, but this will not solve the issue. Every moment is exclusive in its quality and there is no repetition in the universe. As long as science is based on constants we will not be able to explain the dynamic quality of the universe.
Mr Stiffy
I think - therefore I am. Let there be light!. The fine structure constant varies even more than this. Going into a black hole - it stretches almost infinitely but when it gets to the core, it compresses and flattens like a soda can hitting a brick wall. Thus the alpha constant - when running from infinity to zero, is also very very localised in it\'s measurement.
BoilingOil
I agree with Omer Qadir: The laws may still be in place, but the formulae which describe them, may need an extra term containing yet another variable we\'ve not encountered yet. We\'re only human, and our history has made up only a fraction of the universe\'s existance. And the \'scientific revolution\' we\'re in is - what - say 2 centuries old? Why would we already have all the answers? It would be rather presumptious and arrogant to think that we know everything about the Void that we\'re a part of. We\'re nothing, really, and we *know* even less, which is nothing to be ashamed of, given our temporary and fallible nature.
srrnathan
Just because you have discovered something and others also can verify the same thing - say a million times even - it does not become a \'constant\' phenomenon ! The universe is just toooooooooo big to justify that the obeservations from a tiny speck of a sphere called earth is sufficient for us to generalise the same for the universe ! This includes even things like the \'speed of light\' ! Human ignorance is the cause of this kind of generalisations - at times one wonders why the scientists are even doing such things. They seem to be very clear if they have \'measured\' something - by a meter or some other gadget.. Pl ask them to verify the standard used in their measurement..they will find that all that we have done so far in the name of science is just a tiny speck of what the mother nature has been kind enough to show us... Also , do we know who we are ? Scientists, pl look inward rather than outward, for all these kind of questions, pl try
Facebook User
Always so certain, scientists of all sorts, especially astrophysicists. Then they discover something like this or how our most distant space probes aren\'t moving at the exact speed they \"should\" be. Makes me laugh every time they insist traveling at the speed of light, or faster, is impossible. They\'re making a calculated guess. They do not know for certain because the only things that aren\'t photons which have been observed moving near light speed are sub-atomic particles. When somebody manages to shift a macroscopic object to a decent fraction of light speed, then they\'ll actually have some real data to work with. Until then it\'s all THEORY, not tested and proven. Anyone who paid attention in basic science classes knows a theory has to be tested in reality to be proven.
Michael Langston
Time, speed and distance are all trivial perceptions of our under-evolved minds. We all live in a non-local universe. This universe has no constants, well maybe an infinite amount of constants!!
Facebook User
\"Who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure spring with.\" ee cummings