Ain't That One Fiiiine-Structure Constant
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Hey all, sorry for the long hiatus. There were a couple surprise visits by certain special people, and now I’m beginning to plan some mooooves, so there wasn’t much time to blog for a little bit there. That said, I have been reading.
For example, I just read this great article in the Economist about the fine-structure constant.
Despite its convoluted origin, though, alpha [the fine-structure constant] has a real meaning. It characterises the strength of the force between electrically charged particles. As such, it governs — among other things — the energy levels of an atom formed from negatively charged electrons and a positive nucleus…When many different energy levels are involved, as they are in the spectrum of a chemically mixed star, the result is a fine, comb-like structure — hence the constant’s name. If it were to take on a different value, the wavelengths of these lines would change. And that is what Dr Webb and Mr King think they have found.
That may sound trivial, but any detectable deviation from zero would mean that the laws of physics were different there (and then) from those that pertain in the neighbourhood of the Earth.
Using the light from quasars, some physicists think they’ve found evidence for deviations from what we have measures this fine-structure constant to be on Earth. If confirmed, this would be ground-breaking news, for several reasons. Primarily, as mentioned in the above quote, this would mean that the laws of physics vary with time and space. No small thing. The invariability over time and space of physical laws is the cornerstone of many physical theories. Such an incredibly discovery would be… uuuh, is “revolutionary” a strong enough word? an EXPLOSION!! pow!
Stay tuned, folks.
The Economist is one great rag, for many reasons, but I’d never read any of their science articles before. I particularly loved this one because, not only is it talking about something I find very interesting (and you should too), it hits the perfect pitch between too much and too little information.* They tell you the make-up and importance of the fine-structure constant, without bogging you down with higher-level physics and mathematical symbols and such. Well done.
Now if you want to get bogged down by the physics and mathematical symbols, you can go to the ever-awesome Wikipedia article on the subject. Additionally, there is another reporting of this possible discovery in the Technology Review.
*I try to do this. How am I doin'?