The laws of physics describe basic behaviours of nature that are, to our knowledge, universally constant. According to a new study conducted by astrophysicists based in Australia and England, these universal constants might not be as universal as we thought.
The laws of physics are handy little things that help scientists make sense of a universe that more often than not does not make sense. Take the fine-structure constant, or alpha, for instance. It's a magic number that tells us how strong electromagnetism is. It and other such constants are central to the theory of physics as we know it.
And it turns out it might not quite be constant.
"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.
Webb is part of a team from the University of New South Wales, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge that is submitting a report of the discovery for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The researchers base their findings on data taken from both the Very Large Telescope in Chile and the world's largest optical telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Looking at distant galaxies from the Kleck Observatory, researchers observed the alpha getting smaller, while observations taken from the Very Large Telescope looking in the opposite direction indicated a larger alpha. The findings seem to indicate that the alpha fluctuates along a curve.
Which would mean the constant is not constant and the theory of physics might need some serious revision, says Professor Webb.
"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."
"If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them."
Laws of Physics Vary Throughout the Universe, New Study Suggests [Science Daily]