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Author Topic: Variations in fine-structure constant suggest laws of physics not universal

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One of the most controversial questions in cosmology is why the fundamental constants of nature seem fine-tuned for life. One of these fundamental constants is the fine-structure constant, or alpha, which is the coupling constant for the electromagnetic force and equal to about 1/137.0359. If alpha were just 4% bigger or smaller than it is, stars wouldn't be able to make carbon and oxygen, which would have made it impossible for life as we know it to exist. Now, results from a new study show that alpha seems to have varied a tiny bit in different directions of the universe billions of years ago, being slightly smaller in the northern hemisphere and slightly larger in the southern hemisphere. One intriguing possible implication is that the fine-structure constant is continuously varying in space, and seems fine-tuned for life in our neighborhood of the universe.

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Which alludes to life not being a universal constant, meaning that life could be limited to our region of the universe. That doesn't mean there isn't room for the little green buggers in their flying saucers buzzing about in our region, but so far away the technology doesn't yet - or perhaps cannot exist to facilitate communication.

On the other hand, life elsewhere in the universe might be restricted to single cell organisms and other lower forms of life, which means we Homo Sapiens Sapiens (Albus) are the highest life-form in the universe.

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Great perspective Pontifex.

I don't speculate concerning UFO's.  Until, and unless, it has a measurable impact on the White race, extraterrestrial life is none of my concern.  Also, I find that the existence of extraterrestrial life is lacking evidence.

A CREATOR is not gullible, and does not easily accept any statement, belief, assertion or assumption that to him is lacking in proof and/or is unreasonable in the light of his own experiences.

Human life truly is a precious abberation- an oasis of order in an entropic universe.

It is the avowed duty and holy responsibility of each generation to assure and secure for all time the existence of the White Race upon the face of this planet.

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If I were applying logic to the problem I would deduce that biochemistry, i.e Life,..was just an extension of Chemistry. Since the 100 odd Chemicals that exist in Nature ocurr throughout the universe.. then if the conditions are right (with liquid water)... given enough time... more complex chemicals would accrue. Ultimately leading to life.
So I expect that bacterial single celled life forms would be very common in the universe. They exist eight miles down in solid rock as extremophiles. They exist in very hot, cold and acidic conditions. If we also think about space debris and rocks being flung through space from planet to planet (Panspermia) it is quite probable life is that common.
As to higher life forms..if we took as a rule of thumb that humanoid apes have eixted for 1 million years. advanced mammals for 60 million years, reptiles 300 million years, fish 400 million years, insects 400 million years, arthropods 500 million years, cepahalopods 500 million years then we could say that for every habitable planet with some kind of primative intelligent biped there must be 400 that only have sea creatures or arthropod type life. Just my thoughts.
Formerly with the Premier Church of Creativity under Ben Klassen, PM.

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This article goes into the phenomenon in more intricate detail: (Click on link to see diagrams)


Our investigation is astrophysical in nature. We look back in time through most of the history of universe to compare the value of alpha back then with what we measure in the laboratory on Earth today. We also look in as many different directions through space as we can, just in case alpha varies from place to place in the universe as well (or instead). To do this we have used the largest optical telescopes in the world – The Keck I 10-m telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile — to record spectra of extremely distant quasars. A diagram of a quasar spectra illustrating our experiment is shown below.

Figure 1: We look back from Earth to a distant quasar and spread the light out into a spectrum. As the light travels to Earth it traverses an intervening absorption cloud. The atoms in the cloud imprint the quasar spectrum with their “fingerprint” absorption lines (labelled as “‘Metal’ absorption lines”). We compare this fingerprint with that found in laboratories here on Earth to infer any possible changes in the fine-structure constant. Note: High-quality versions of this plot, with and without annotations, and variations of them, are provided here.

Quasars are extremely massive (about a billion solar mass) black holes that rip apart and suck in any surrounding material. They reside at the centre of some galaxies and pull in the surrounding stars and gas. The inspiralling material heats up as it collides with other material causing the quasar to shine extremely brightly. In fact most quasars outshine their host galaxies which contain more than 100 billion stars. A massive black hole also resides at the centre of our own galaxy – The Milky Way – but it is not massive enough to become a quasar. Quasars are so bright and so compact that they can be seen even when the quasar is many billions of light years away (to compare, the age of the universe is about 14 billion years).

Quasars are very interesting in themselves but, in our experiment, we use the quasars only as background sources of light to reveal our real targets of interest, intervening foreground galaxies. These gas clouds in these galaxies are mostly made up of hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe) but also contain ionized traces of heavier atoms such as magnesium, aluminium, silicon, chromium, iron, nickel and zinc — metallic atoms familiar to us here on Earth.

The metallic atoms absorb some of the quasar light on its 10 billion year journey to the Earth. This absorption is characteristic of each atom, much like a fingerprint is characteristic of each person. As we receive the light at the telescope, we spread it out into its colours – we form the spectrum of the quasar light – to reveal each atom’s fingerprint. See Fig. 1 above for a schematic explanation of this.

Previous results

We compare the atomic fingerprints in the quasar spectra with those measured in laboratory experiments here on Earth. Rather than finding them to be the same, as one might expect, on average we see very slight differences between the quasar and laboratory spectra: the lines making up the fingerprints appear at slightly different wavelengths/colours than expected! The separation between the absorption lines is controlled by the fine structure constant, alpha, and so we interpret these differences as changes in alpha.

Back in 1999 we published our first analysis of 30 distant absorption clouds observed with the Keck 10-m telescope in Hawaii. Those results revealed tentative evidence for a smaller alpha in the distant absorption clouds compared to the Earth’s value.

In 2001 we published stronger evidence for a smaller alpha in more, and even more distant, galaxies. Two independent samples of Keck spectra seemingly revealed the same effect. We also throroughly explored possible “systematic effects” – artefacts in the data or our analysis which might spuriously mimic a varying alpha – but we found none that could easily explain our results. A The New York Times article nicely summarizes the 2001 results.

In 2003 we published a very large third sample of galaxies, again from the Keck telescope and again showing evidence for a smaller alpha in the absorption clouds. By 2004 we had made 143 measurements of alpha – see Fig. 2 for a recent plot of our results – and, on average, all three independent samples all pointed towards a smaller alpha in the distant universe…

…at least in the general direction of the sky seen by the Keck telescope, Hawaii!

Figure 2: Our measured fractional change in the fine structure constant, alpha=e2/hc, from our previous Keck results is plotted as a function of fractional look-back time (0=present day, 1=beginning of time, about 13.7 billion years ago). The corresponding cosmological redshift is shown along the bottom axis. Each point represents the average value of about 10 absorption systems. There is now evidence that alpha has evolved one part in 100,000 over the last 10 billion (or so) years. Another possibility is that alpha is simply different in distant regions of the universe from what we measure on Earth. But what does the VLT say?

New results

Enter our new results from the Very Large Telescope (VLT), Chile.

It’s absolutely essential to check the Keck results on another telescope to make sure no subtle problems with the telescope spuriously mimicked a varying alpha in our results. So, over the past few years, we’ve been busily measuring alpha from publically-available quasar spectra taken with the VLT.

And here’s the strange thing: we do find evidence for a different alpha in these VLT galaxies, only this time alpha is, on average, larger in those galaxies compared to here on Earth, not smaller like in the Keck results.

Being in the southern hemisphere, the VLT sees, on average, a different part of the sky than the Keck telescope. So we checked how alpha varied in our results as we looked in different directions on the sky. To our surprise a simple consistency emerged: the variation in alpha is well-described by a big “dipole” on the sky. That is, if you look in one direction in the universe (the pole), alpha is larger. Look in the other direction (the anti-pole) and alpha is smaller. Look somewhere between and alpha is, on average, somewhat closer to the value we see here on Earth.

Figure 3: All-sky plot showing the dipole directions from the Keck (green), VLT (blue) and combined (red) samples. The “balloons” represent the 1-sigma uncertainty contours for the dipole directions. There’s about a 4% chance of the Keck and VLT dipole aligning as well (or better) than we see here by chance alone.

How robust is this result? It’s always hard to tell exactly how reliable a result like this is, but, speaking strictly statistically, our data suggest the dipole signal we find only has a 0.004% chance of being a fluke. Scientists would say that the result is significant at the 99.996% confidence level. That sounds really robust! That’s why why we’ve reported the results. But extra special care is required when such surprising results like this emerge — extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!

One encouraging aspect of this result is that, if you treat the Keck and VLT results separately, the poles from each of them point in about the same direction on the sky. See Fig. 3 above. We calculate that there’s about a 4% chance of this being a fluke.

The pole of this “alpha dipole” is way down under. It lies in the little-known constellation of Ara (the alter), just to the south of the better-known contellation of Scorpius (the scorpion). The pole’s astronomical coordinates are roughly right-ascension 17 hours, declination -61 degrees.

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