Random Thoughts on the Universe

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Variable Constant

We just received word of a new result that could have major implications for physics if it is confirmed. Apparently a team of astronomers/astrophysicists in Australia have determined that the fine-structure constant has a spatial dependency.

In particle physics, there is a constant which determines the electrical charge of the electron and all other charged particles - the fine structure constant. If this constant is higher, then the electrons and protons in all matter have a stronger binding. If it is lower, then the atoms are less bounded (and may not even form). As it turns out, the constant is in a range of values that are required to support life, but there is no reason why this should be so.

The new result indicates that the fine structure constant takes on different values in different parts of the Universe. That would suggest that we happen to live in a nice part of the Universe where life can exist, and that there is no need to fine tune the laws of physics to get that result.

On the theoretical side, it indicates that the electromagnetic coupling of particles is far more interesting than previously thought. One possibility is that there is a new particle which has never been detected before, and which essentially shields the electron and proton from electric forces. And if that is true, there is no telling what technological advances could be gained from a variable electric charge.

As I have said many times before, this is just a preliminary result and many times they don't hold up under further scrutiny. But it is interesting to consider and it will be interesting to see what develops from it.

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