Posted by Lex, on September 1, 2010
The universe, many physicists agree, is “fine tuned” * for life. If any one of a number of different of fundamental, physical constants * were altered only just a little, life – at least as we know it – would not be possible.
One of these fundamental constants is the so-called “fine structure” * constant, so named because by multiplying a number of other fundamental constants together a pure, unitless number is attained. The fine structure constant, known to physicists as α is elegantly dimensionless, and utterly mysterious, as quantum mechanic Richard Feynman * wrote:
Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!
Except it turns out that, perhaps – maybe – α is not constant at all: *
What (a research team) found shocked them. The further back they looked with the (very large telescope), the larger alpha seemed to be—in seeming contradiction to the result they had obtained with the Keck. They realised, however, that there was a crucial difference between the two telescopes: because they are in different hemispheres, they are pointing in opposite directions. Alpha, therefore, is not changing with time; it is varying through space. When they analysed the data from both telescopes in this way, they found a great arc across the sky. Along this arc, the value of alpha changes smoothly, being smaller in one direction and larger in the other. The researchers calculate that there is less than a 1% chance such an effect could arise at random. Furthermore, six of the quasars were observed with both telescopes, allowing them to get an additional handle on their errors.
Or put another way, and in another context, * “What we’re suggesting is that something that can’t interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed.”
Maybe Bostrom was right. *
** 04-23-18 Links all updated – Ed.