Laws of Physics Vary Throughout the Universe, New Study Suggests
A team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England has uncovered evidence that the laws of physics are different 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.
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.
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.
The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres — they look in different directions through the universe. Looking to the north with Keck a smaller alpha is seen in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT a larger alpha is detected. It varies by only a tiny amount over most of the observable universe, but it’s possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon.
The discovery will force scientists to rethink the 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. While a ‘varying constant’ would shake our understanding of the world around us extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.
Image: Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work: the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile.