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Laws of physics may just be 'local by-laws'


September 9, 2010

Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)

Illustration of the dipolar variation in the fine-structure constant, alpha, across the sky, as seen by the two telescopes used in the work (Image: Dr. Julian Berengut, UNSW)

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Star Trek’s Scotty was adamant that you “canna change the laws of physics,” but, according to a report from a team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England, that could be exactly what happens 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,” Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.

“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,” Webb added. “If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

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.

Mr Julian King from the University of New South Wales explained how, after combining the two sets of measurements, the new result 'struck' them. "The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres – they look in different directions through the universe. Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha."

"It varies by only a tiny amount – about one part in 100,000 – over most of the observable universe, but it's possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon," Mr King said.

The discovery will force scientists to rethink their 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," Dr Michael Murphy from Swinburne University said. "While a 'varying constant' would shake our understanding of the world around us extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we're finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”

"It's one of the biggest questions of modern science – are the laws of physics the same everywhere in the universe and throughout its entire history? We're determined to answer this burning question one way or the other," Murphy said.

The team from the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge has submitted a report of the discovery for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. A preliminary version of the paper is currently under peer review.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

like I\'ve been telling people. They aren\'t \"laws\" there more like suggestions......... keep going the way you\'re going, you find out..

David Larson

It doesn\'t change the laws .... it only changes the parameters of the laws. The laws themselves remain the same.... which is a hypothesis that was put forward some time ago .... seems like they have got more evidence to support it now.

scotty hasn\'t been proven wrong yet ! :-)

Omer Qadir

Sorry, I\'m not convinced. Are they really seeing variations through space, or through time? Big bang theory has proposed that some of the fundamental constants are changing through time already. Are they sure that this is not related to some already well established idea, like the expansion of the universe, or to some less established but still well known observation, like dark energy?

Charles Bosse

Laws and rules in science are made to try to explain what happens in the universe. Thus the \"constants\" are measures in science to explain and calculate effects in the Universe. Unfortunately the Universe does not know anything which is constant as the Universe is moving and changing continuously and it is unlimited. Whenever we try to get the two scenes correlating we get convinced that we need new laws and rules, but this will not solve the issue. Every moment is exclusive in its quality and there is no repetition in the universe. As long as science is based on constants we will not be able to explain the dynamic quality of the universe.


I think - therefore I am.

Let there be light!.

The fine structure constant varies even more than this.

Going into a black hole - it stretches almost infinitely but when it gets to the core, it compresses and flattens like a soda can hitting a brick wall.

Thus the alpha constant - when running from infinity to zero, is also very very localised in it\'s measurement.

Mr Stiffy

I agree with Omer Qadir: The laws may still be in place, but the formulae which describe them, may need an extra term containing yet another variable we\'ve not encountered yet.

We\'re only human, and our history has made up only a fraction of the universe\'s existance. And the \'scientific revolution\' we\'re in is - what - say 2 centuries old? Why would we already have all the answers? It would be rather presumptious and arrogant to think that we know everything about the Void that we\'re a part of. We\'re nothing, really, and we know even less, which is nothing to be ashamed of, given our temporary and fallible nature.


Just because you have discovered something and others also can verify the same thing - say a million times even - it does not become a \'constant\' phenomenon ! The universe is just toooooooooo big to justify that the obeservations from a tiny speck of a sphere called earth is sufficient for us to generalise the same for the universe ! This includes even things like the \'speed of light\' !

Human ignorance is the cause of this kind of generalisations - at times one wonders why the scientists are even doing such things. They seem to be very clear if they have \'measured\' something - by a meter or some other gadget.. Pl ask them to verify the standard used in their measurement..they will find that all that we have done so far in the name of science is just a tiny speck of what the mother nature has been kind enough to show us...

Also , do we know who we are ?

Scientists, pl look inward rather than outward, for all these kind of questions, pl try


Always so certain, scientists of all sorts, especially astrophysicists. Then they discover something like this or how our most distant space probes aren\'t moving at the exact speed they \"should\" be.

Makes me laugh every time they insist traveling at the speed of light, or faster, is impossible. They\'re making a calculated guess. They do not know for certain because the only things that aren\'t photons which have been observed moving near light speed are sub-atomic particles.

When somebody manages to shift a macroscopic object to a decent fraction of light speed, then they\'ll actually have some real data to work with. Until then it\'s all THEORY, not tested and proven. Anyone who paid attention in basic science classes knows a theory has to be tested in reality to be proven.

Facebook User

Time, speed and distance are all trivial perceptions of our under-evolved minds. We all live in a non-local universe. This universe has no constants, well maybe an infinite amount of constants!!

Michael Langston

\"Who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure spring with.\" ee cummings

Facebook User

The Universe is Deaf, Dumb, Blind, and Stupid. Think about that. It is only us,as observers, that see what is going on. Without us, does anything take place? If it does, what is the point of it all? Comments welcome


Without scientific discovery (even if proven wrong 100 years later) is to be able to explain observations and plan accordingly. Without this, most of the things we have today would not have existed. So stop trying to be so smart. At least someone is doing something to figure it out and progress human kind. Constants are being used to make formulas work in the absence of proof of an underlying theory. \'If we plug in this number, the result always matches our observation\'. We still have to figure out what these constants really are.


compare to general relativity, newton law are local. when it go to special relativity, newton will not anymore useful.the parameter may so different until result the current constant not applicable. Big bang theory come the time without Hubble telescope. Should someone theorize now there is a even big big bang and old big bang is result of galaxy supernova? Has anyone see a black hole vanish? or is there any case study shows black hole explode ? or is there any supernova that the size are larger than any known star? ...... is there anything else than graviton to configure current atom model?


things are about to change!

Thom Delahunt
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