Is the Universe a Bad Sport?

In sports and in cosmology, the rules of the game aren't supposed to change as you go along. Athletes call this playing fair. Cosmologists call it the cosmological principle, and it means that the rules that govern atoms here on Earth also hold in every corner of the universe and at every point in time.

Imagine the universe as a basketball court: The hoop on one end of the hardwood is supposed to be the exact same height as the one on the opposite side. But what if the basket on the home side of the court always skews a few centimeters lower than the visitors' rim? It wouldn't be very fair. But now, cosmologists led by John Webb (University of New South Wales, Sydney) think they've spotted evidence that the rules of the cosmos might be similarly partisan.

Using light from distant galactic cores called quasars, the scientists set out to test whether the fine structure constant, a number that dials in the strength of electromagnetism, is really the same over all of space and time. According to everything we know about the physics of the universe (and good sportsmanship), it should be: Physicists don't call it the fine structure constant for nothing.

The fine structure constant is actually a combination of other physical constants: It's two times pi times the square of the charge of an electron, divided by the product of the speed of light and Planck's constant. (This is one of those things that is more elegant as an equation than as a piece of prose.) In any case, it works out to about 1/137. That number can't be derived from first principles, so physicists don't know why it takes that value. It just does.

But if the fine structure constant took some other value, the strength of the force between electrons and protons would be different. That would make electrons arrange themselves differently within atoms, changing the characteristic light spectrum of every element. Which brings us back to those quasar spectra. By looking for minute shifts in the spectra of quasars from all over the sky, Webb hoped to pin down exactly how "constant" the fine structure constant really is.

First, Webb and his team looked at the spectra of quasars in the northern hemisphere. To their surprise, the fine structure constant appeared to be smaller in the distant past than it is today. Things got even stranger when the scientists looked at southern-hemisphere quasars. This time, the fine structure constant looked larger in the past. Webb's conclusion: The fine structure constant takes different values depending on where you're located in space. Webb and his team even suggest that the entire visible universe could be a rare cosmic sweet spot in which the fine structure constant is compatible with life. Beyond the horizon, there may be an infinite expanse in which physics acts in unfamiliar (and possibly hostile) ways. The paper reporting the result hasn't been published yet, but you can download a preview here.

Is this for real? Physicists are skeptical. The northern-hemisphere result, which was first suggested back in 1999, drew plenty of criticism, and when a competing team of astrophysicists tried to confirm it, they came up empty-handed. (Webb disputes that result.) Critics also worry that Webb may have failed to account for some systematic bias in his instruments or in his analysis that could be masquerading as variation in the fine structure constant.

Even if follow-up observations confirm that the fine structure constant varies from place to place, another big question remains: What component of the fine structure constant is changing? The speed of light? The charge of the electron? Planck's constant? The whole shebang? Who's not playing fair here?

User Comments:

For all the 50 plus years of seti searching of advanced civilizations in space, there are no beacons, and no repeatable signals from space to suggest that we are the only advanced civilization to peer into the universe.

Fermi's paradox is a haunting reminder that either we are intellectual freaks of nature, or we are all alone in our galaxy. The problem is that something maybe destroying advanced civilizations before they get past type II advanced civilization achievements. – If alien hostile probes were coming after us, they would have no reason to communicate with earth, and would want to destroy advanced civilizations before they can come up with a defense against these berserker probes. That is why we possibly do not detect other forms for advanced civilizations from Seti, and Hubble telescope because these berserker killer probes have already killed off all other advanced civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy.

Hawking maybe right in believing in a passive watching of alien signals from possible advanced civilizations rather than answer calls from aliens out to destroy earth.

According to the drake equation, the universe, and our milky way galaxy should be teeming with advanced civilizations, and yet, no artificial beacons blinking that should be easily seen by the naked eyes from earth. No appearance of dyson shields from type III civilizations from Hubble. We appear to be alone in the universe, and in our galaxy. The Fermi paradox becomes an unanswerable question with frightful conclusions with no real answers as to why we appear to be alone in the universe.

A paradox is a true statement that leads to a contradiction, which defies intuition. – The alien predator comes to earth, and wants an easy kill.

We as a pre- type I civilization should know better with all the wars all the people of earth have fought to ever expect aliens would come in peace. If there are other alien civilizations, their advancement did not come by promoting peace, but from war, and hatred for other alien civilizations. In some other alien world, Hitler won, and is not spreading berserker probes to kill off other civilizations. Hawking’s warning of not letting seti signals answered is a good call for planet earth.

I have read on the Nova site that galaxies are moving away from each other not because they are moving, but space itself is stretching. How do we know that they are not just moving away from each other - just like any 2 objects on earth that are moving on different trajectories ? On earth the space is not expanding, so why does anyone think that space is expanding just because 2 galaxies are moving apart on different trajectories ? I would think that the laws of physics need to be assumed to be the same everywhere, unless absolutely proven otherwise. This would apply to the fine structure constant as well - it should be assumed to be the same everywhere until proven, not hypothesized, to be different.

Kate Beckam,s statement that the fine structure constant can't be derived from first principles is in error. I have done it. To view this derivatiob go to:

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