Relatively Insane

One of the most exciting pieces of research in Australia in recent years relates to possible changes in α in time and space. I’ll do my best to explain this clearly, but it’s not easy, particularly as some of the scientists collaborating on the work seem to see it a bit differently. For those who don’t care about the physics, skip the next six paragraphs – there’s politics for dessert.

α, for the uninitiated, is the symbol for the fine structure “constant”. It determines the strength of electromagnetic interactions. It is also equal to a numerical value times the charge on an electron squared, divided by Plank’s constant, divided by the speed of light. I’m not going to explain Plank’s constant, but suffice to say it’s one the most important values in physics, and the significance of the speed of light and the charge on an electron probably don’t need to be emphasised.

In recent years Swinburne’s Dr Michael Murphy and Professor John Webb of the University of New South Wales have produced several pieces of evidence suggesting that the fine structure “constant” isn’t a constant (thus the quotation marks). First they found indications it had been slightly different billions of years ago in distant parts of the universe. More recently they found something even stranger: They produced evidence that the value of the constant is slightly higher billions of lightyears in one direction, and slightly lower billions of light years in the opposite direction.

Let me stress that this work is very much unconfirmed. Indeed some scientists have tried to replicate the first research and claimed they’re wrong, although Murphy believes he’s found flaws in the response.

However, if this turns out to be real it’s absolutely huge. The sort of thing that could be ranked as one of the great discoveries of the early years of the 21st century. α itself is important enough to make this a big story, but you can’t have α changing without one of the constants that make it up changing as well. The quest to discover whether e, c or hbar (sorry can’t do the symbol for Plank’s constant on here) has changed would be a huge race. What if it’s more than one of them? Why? Our understanding of the universe would be shaken dramatically. Just think what it would mean if electrons are slowly gaining or losing charge.

The idea that the speed of light may be changing (slowing down seemed to be more popular than speeding up) had been kicked around a bit beforehand, so the initial evidence of α having been lower billions of years ago wasn’t a total shock. However, if anyone can get their heads around the idea of a higher α in one direction, and lower in the other, I haven’t encountered them. The whole thing seems inexplicable – which means physicists would  have huge fun explaining it. Asimov said, ” The most exciting words to hear in science aren’t ‘Eureka’, but ‘that’s odd'”. And this would be very odd indeed.

In passing, if the research holds up, it’ll be the biggest thing ever for Swinburne. UNSW is a group of eight university with an international reputation. Swinburne has it’s strengths, but is hardly famous. Being part of this would be a bit like the Faroe Islands winning the World Cup.

So, one to keep an eye on. But where is the politics? John Quiggin recently posted an update on the hostility of the US (and sometimes Australian) right to science in general, noting that the attacks have now spread beyond climatology and biology to physics with denunciations of the theory of relativity – because it might imply moral relativism.

In comments, Quiggin links to Conservapeida (a right-wing response to wikipedia established because the original site dares to use metric units and UK spelling, amongst other things) listing “counter examples” which supposedly show the theory of relativity is incorrect. I’m not familiar with most of these, but some of them relate to measurement errors or other matters which have been successfully explained. Others are thought experiments that misunderstand the concept of relativity. I’m willing to bet some are based on confusion between special and general relativity – that usually traps the unwary.

And guess what, at #11 we have “Newly observed data reveal that a fundamental constant of physics, α (alpha), actually varies throughout the universe, demonstrating that all inertial frames of reference do not experience identical laws of physics as claimed by Relativity”. The reference is one of Webb’s papers.

In a very narrow sense Conservapedia is right. If Webb and Murphy’s research stands then relativity theory is one of the things that will have to change. That however, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, anymore than Einstein’s work meant that Newton was an idiot. Whatever comes out of the revision of physics that will occur if Webb and Murphy are vindicated will build on relativity in the same way Einstein built on Newton. There is still some genuine doubt as to whether General Relativity is correct, although it keeps surviving every test we can throw at it. As for Special Relativity, disputing it pretty much automatically ranks you as a crank. No serious scientists doubt it is broadly correct, even if it turns out there are some special circumstance deviations.

Of course, denouncing relativity has not yet become gospel on the right the way Global Warming denial is in all English speaking countries, and creationism is in the US. But amongst the attackers are people who are treated as significant figures in the intellectual right – a term which is increasingly becoming an oxymoron.

It’s not unusual for climatologists to do work that provides further evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming and find their work distorted on blogs, in newspaper articles and even in books such as Heaven and Earth to mean the exact opposite of what it really means. I’m less familiar with the evolution debates, but I gather it goes on there as well. Nevertheless, because I’ve written several articles on Murphy and Webb’s work, and because it’s usually a less politically fraught field, I found the twisting of their research particularly shocking. The enemies of science really have no shame.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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4 Responses to Relatively Insane

  1. Jim Birch says:

    testing: ħ

  2. Jim Birch says:

    Ha. But an absolutely fascinating discovery (especially if confirmed 🙂

  3. attacks have now spread beyond climatology and biology to physics with denunciations of the theory of relativity – because it might imply moral relativism.

    OK, that’s … is this a very special misunderstanding of the use of the word “general” in the title “general relativity” or what!?

    I am of the general opinion that once anything has reached the level of being included in Conservapedia it’s so crackpot that it’s hardly worth mentioning… like when you take your Support Gay Marriage petition up to a Fred Nile rally and get abused. I seem to be feeling cynical today…

  4. Oh, and on a science-related topic the fine-structure stuff is fascinating in itself! Thank you for the explanation which I found helpful although I am not nearly well up enough on physics to really understand what it really means.

    I remember reading that it is thought to have changed in the first tinsy tiny bit of the universe’s existence – presumably because the speed of light was different then – but I had not heard that there was this new research.

    I also find those equations that link thinks which appear to be unrelated on the surface to be fascinating! Euler’s Identity has always been one of my favouritest math equations, even now I understand how you derive it from Euler’s formula and hence how it’s not nearly as inexplicable as it seemed when I was 12 … but I’ve always found that understanding scientific things makes them seem more wonderous and miraculous – to know how a rainbow is formed seems to me to make it at least a hundred times more beautiful!!

    Thanks for sharing the love! 🙂 (I bet you don’t get that comment too often…)

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