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Fundamental Constant Possibly Inconsistent 317

Posted by Zonk
from the those-wacky-constants dept.
dylanduck writes "Cosmologists have begun thinking that yet another fundamental constant of nature is, er, not constant. The constant in question is the ratio of a proton's mass to that of an electron. It governs the strong nuclear force but there's no explanation for why that ratio should be constant. If true it would provide support for string theory, which predicts extra spatial dimensions." From the article: "Researchers at the Free University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the European Southern Observatory in Chile discovered the variation in mu. They did it by comparing the spectrum of molecular hydrogen gas in the laboratory to what it was in quasars 12 billion light years away. The spectrum depends on the relative masses of protons and electrons in the molecule."
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Fundamental Constant Possibly Inconsistent

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:31PM (#15174423)
    ...that God is a woman.
  • by FreezerJam (138643) <> on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:33PM (#15174434)
    Haven't I heard that one before? []

  • by Snarfangel (203258) on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:37PM (#15174469) Homepage
    ...isn't constant, either. Perhaps we can rename them "fundamental variables."
  • by iainl (136759) on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:38PM (#15174480)
    ...if the ratio is changing, doesn't that mean that either electrons or protons (probably both) have changed mass?

    How the hell does that work?
  • Intelligent Design? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RSquaredW (969317) on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:40PM (#15174507)
    Hmm, wasn't one of the arguments for intelligent design that the fundamental constants had to be "just right" for the universe to exist? If the shifts of other dimensions causes shifts in our universal constants...another nail in the necessity-of-God argument's coffin?

    String theory makes my head hurt.
    • by Straif (172656)
      I saw the argument coming but I was really hoping no one would bring ID/Evo into this.

      However I was seeing the case from the other side as 'proof' that if such fundemental scientific principles can be shown to be inaccurate, how much 'faith' can we have in the theory of Evolution which is laregely based on much less demonstrable certainties that the fields of physics and math.

      Either way, I say just screw it and wait till you're dead. It's the only way to know who's right for sure anyway.
    • You can't fight that argument with any type of logic. These transient "Arguments" disapear and they make up others. The arguments do not have to withstand any scrutany and just have to sound good to "Believers".

      The concept of "Faith" was a magnificant and powerful creation--a tool that can allow a few people to control millions--and I'd like to meet the amazingly talented P/R man who figured out how to tag such a horrid, evil concept as "Good".

      Question Everything.
      • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday April 21, 2006 @03:28PM (#15176229)

        First of all, to stay a little bit on topic, the theoretically observed change in mu is extremely small. Physicists don't know why mu should be about 1836 instead of about 1836.5 or 3 or 11,296,428. My understanding is (and I am not an expert on this), that really small change in mu like we're talking about here wouldn't significantly affect the universe and it would still look largely like it does, but somewhat small change in mu, like an order of magnitude would, a lot. This bugs physicists because they don't know why it is what it is. Why do we have the universe we have instead of something drastically different like one that collapsed or blew apart 10 minutes after the Big Bang? The only answer they can offer is the anthropic principle: It is the way it is because if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to notice.

        The existence of God does not hinge on the constancy of mu. This doesn't even disprove intelligent design, which is as bad from a theological perspective as it is from a scientific perspective, being vain in both schools. Several prominent Catholic theologians have stated as much. The perplexing question of why fundamental particles are the way they are and therefore allow us to exist does not constitute a proof of God's existence, but they are rather suggestive.

        For the record, I think a brief discussion of creation concepts would be appropriate in social studies (as part of a survey of religions) or in philosophy classes (the study of being) in public schools, but not in science. I want to point out that if God created the phenomena which allows and upon which we base our science, it's unlikely that we would be able to prove or disprove His existence directly through science.

        The concept of "Faith" was a magnificant and powerful creation--a tool that can allow a few people to control millions--and I'd like to meet the amazingly talented P/R man who figured out how to tag such a horrid, evil concept as "Good".

        Question Everything

        I wasn't going to reply, but it seemed worthwhile to Question this statement. Who is controlled here? The billions of faithful who find meaning in life? In what way are we controlled? By adherence to principles that are conducive to the betterment of mankind like "love your neighbor as yourself" and "Thou shalt not kill?" What is the gain for these scheming, evil leaders and their P/R man? You don't exactly see a lot of priests pimping it up with 22" rims on their Lincolns and an escort on each arm. Celibacy, the difficulties of working with a faith-community, itchy robes, and a badly off-key there's a good reason to cook up a religion. I'm willing to guarantee you the overwhelming majority of religious leaders really do believe in the faith they profess. Yes there is a large degree of misdirection and a few unscrupulous groups that are nothing more than pyramid schemes or printing companies, but the basic precepts of most religions out there are founded, promoted, and executed with good intent.

        • The first part of your post is good...but the second one about faith leaves a lot to be desired.

          The billions of faithful who find meaning in life?

          Actually no one finds meaning in life from religion...because religion dictates that this life is just a test for the afterlife. People usually find meaning in life when they get rid of religions, i.e superstitions, witchcraft and the like.

          In what way are we controlled?

          Religion makes people pathetic command receptors. They await like sheep for an orde

        • I wasn't going to reply, but it seemed worthwhile to Question this statement. Who is controlled here?

          Who is being controlled by faith??? Are you seriously asking?

          Okay, Let's see...

          Terrorists seeking virgins in the afterlife.
          Christians voting for Bush.
          Christians bombing abortion clinics and/or murdering abortion doctors.
          Any religious followers donating to these filthy-rich preachers.
          Catholics agreeing to avoid birth control.
          Catholic priests avoiding sex (added by the church so they wouldn't leave churches t
    • "wasn't one of the arguments for intelligent design that the fundamental constants had to be "just right" for the universe to exist?"

      I think not... *POOF!*

    • No. In fact certain ID scientists do believe that certain constants were different about 4000 years ago. This has to do with the helium diffusion rates in zircon crystals and some other junk RATE project []. Granted its a different constant, but it does mean that ID scientists aren't opposed to "constants" being changed. Now I don't really like their explanation as to how this happened (enter hand of God) but it does show some dating inconsitiencies (that greatly exceed error margins). But what really gets me
    • There are likely several of these out there, but The Missing Matter [] by Thomas R. McDonough is an interesting SciFi piece with "changing constants" and parallel universes.

      A more serious article [] was published about a year ago on similar changes in constants.

    • I thought this was also called the anthropic principle: [] intelligence and advanced carbon-water life might not be possible with constants much different than we are. Some say this implies the teleology (goal-directed universe) of intelligent design.
    • Nah, it simply means God played a lil' with the knobs of the Universum machine :)
    • by Illbay (700081)
      ...another nail in the necessity-of-God argument's coffin?

      But wouldn't God know what should be constant and what should be variable?

      Sorry, I have a far, far more difficult time getting my mind around "it's all just mere chance" than "God is in the details."

    • "Hmm, wasn't one of the arguments for intelligent design that the fundamental constants had to be "just right" for the universe to exist? If the shifts of other dimensions causes shifts in our universal constants...another nail in the necessity-of-God argument's coffin?"

      The summary brought up ID in my mind, too, but in the opposite way: that the universe was being tweaked to affect some unknown purpose.

    • maybe it's not some much the constant has changed as it is the constance involves factors we are not aware of and maybe be able to become aware of because of our reference frame.
  • Hmm... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by PiMuNu (865592)

    It's interesting that they think the ratio effects the strong force. Electrons don't see the strong force, so I'm not sure that this is true - anyone know any better?

    The result is accurate to 3.5 sigma - so (possibly) good to about 95 %. Based on a new model of H2 molecule, not sure how well verified it is. I suspect any fool could make any non-standard model measurement fit with string theory so I wouldn't read too much into that.

    • Maybe they just got it backwards in the article. Perhaps they should have said that a change in the value of mu implies a change in the strong force (assuming that the change in the mass ratio is due to a corresponding change in the binding energy of the proton).
  • Being an amature scientist (engineer by profession) I always wonder why the laws in physics be constant as well ? Never got any satisfactory (and comprehensible) answer yet. To certain extent, it is equally important as 'changing' constants as well.

    Also I would like to know little more about the error analysis here. A claim like 0.002% should be carefully checked to make sure about the measurement limitations etc.

    Readers are directed to another good article [] (not flooded with scientific jargon).

    • That's a very rational idea
    • Pi = 3.

      Maybe where you come from, but in California, it is 3.

      Recent discoveries in the legal profession have left scientists, many of whom still linger romantically in the Newtonian world, scrambling to catch up in the field of New Causality. In a case last month, a judge in Sacramento ruled in favor of changing the value of pi, thus acquitting a tire manufacturer of making tires that were not fully round. An appeal by scientists was thrown out for lack of evidence when the small courtroom could not physic

    • by ameoba (173803) on Friday April 21, 2006 @01:43PM (#15175117)
      Arbitrarily changing universal constants can be a bad thing.

      I remember one time, in my youth, while partaking of illicit mind-altering substances, looking at a window. More specifically, a small piece of stained-glass hanging from the window. Hanging by a suction cup.

      A circular suction cup.

      This piece of stained glass had been hanging on that very window for years.

      Deep in thought, looking at this stained glass, I thought to myself "You know, if I was God, I'd probably round off pi to a million decimal places or so - it wouldn't really effect anything and it would make things much simpler". At which point, this stained glass, hanging from a circular suction cup, which had been there, unmoving, for years, due to a failure in the circular suction cup, fell to the ground and shattered.

      I learned my lesson - don't mess with universal constants.
    • Pi = 3.

      Looks like it's time to change my handle.
  • by davidoff404 (764733) on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:46PM (#15174561)
    Where the hell did they get that from? String theory is fully compatible with the idea that the constants in nature are actually constant. After all, string theory has been developed to fit the data and nobody has been able to provide any evidence that this is not the case in the real world. On the contrary, changing fundamental constants would require more finessing of string theory in order to fit the data.

    And yes, before you start, I know what I'm talking about.
    • You definitely know what you're talking about, but you didn't read - or probably the summary was misphrased. "there's no explanation for why that ratio should be constant. If true it would provide support for string theory": in other words, if the constant is actually constant, then string theory's cool. If it's not, then we might have problems.
    • Of course string theory is cnsistant with a constant mu. Any theory must be consistant with current observations. The point here is that conventional QM theory is inconsistant with a variable mu while string theory might be. This lends weight to accepting string theory as a more accurate discription of reality as it more correctly explains this observed phonominia.

    • If anything, it has only implemented arrays of char.
  • Some comments (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, 2006 @12:48PM (#15174575)
    Historically speaking, there have been many claims in the past about various fundamental constants varying with time, and pretty much all of them have eventually not been corroborated by independent experimental groups. So take this with a large grain of salt.

    Also, with regard to string theory... well, string theory is more or less compatible with practically any scenario you can think of, because it's so flexible (to phrase it charitably). Any "new physics" can generally be claimed to "support" some string-inspired model. This does not in itself constitute strong evidence for string theory (since you can cook up specific non-string models too).

    Here is a link to one string theorist's (opinionated) blog regarding this issue []. He notes that this ratio being constant is also consistent with string theory (and is what he believes is likely to be true).
  • Why can't other constants, like say pi, be variable as well? Allow pi to vary, and you have the warping of space. How is that so strange? What assume constants are constant? (I really am curious, not trolling.)
    • We already do let Pi be variable. Pi equals 3.14... only in Euclidean geometry. If you extend the idea to non-Euclidean geometries the *interpretation* of Pi must change. The number itself doesn't change since it's *defined* to be what it is.
      • I think I follow you. In my thinking I was considering the observed properties of a circle, not the mathematical absolute of a circle.

        Say I observe a spherical object which is impossibly perfect, matching the mathematical properties of a sphere. Now let's say the observed value of pi changes within that sphere, and as a result I observe the volume of the sphere growing while the surface area of the sphere remains constant.

        You are saying: congratulations, you've changed the sphere into a non-euclidean spa
      • Pi is the ratio of a circles circumference to it's diameter, in a euclidean space. If you extend the idea of Pi into a non-euclidean space, it is up to you to define that extension. Pi has no commonly accepted definition in a non-euclidean space. In any case, Pi, or any mathematical constant, is a "constant" in a much different sense than the "constant" in the article, which ought to be called a "strikingly consistent observed value". Mathematical constants do not vary the way the value in the article
    • Re:Other constants (Score:2, Informative)

      by tylersoze (789256)
      Well mathematical constants like pi really are constant which I would hope would be obvious. :) Pi doesn't have anything to do with the warping of space, it's just a value that is defined to be the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter in flat Euclidean space. Fundamental "constants" are just values plugged into physics equations that we just happen to assume to be constant. If we find that they're not constant then we really shouldn't be calling them constants.
    • Re:Other constants (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Decaff (42676)
      Why can't other constants, like say pi, be variable as well?

      Pi is not a physical constant. It is the result of a mathematical expression. It can't change.
  • by MoogMan (442253)
    This doesn't suprise me. We are the variable, trying to fit into the constants of the universe. This is why it's so hard to find "constants"...
  • .002% change (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Enrique1218 (603187)
    Are their instruments more precise than that? But, I found mass as an paradox when I look at it in Quantum Mechanics. We still use it in the Hamiltonian but we also rely on the electron as a dimensionless wave disturbance. Also, on a macroscopic level, we measure mass relative to other in Earth's gravity, but in Quantum Mechanics we don't factor it in because it is so small. How do we really know what the mass of the electron is. We need a more fundamental definition of what mass is before we can rely on m
    • Re:.002% change (Score:2, Interesting)

      by shma (863063)
      Mass is more fundamental than you imply in your statement. The mass of the electron is not found by simply 'weighing' it (measuring its gravitational force under earth's gravity), as you suggest. Of course, you know that force, any force, is related to acceleration through mass, and in the electrons case, we use mangetic force experiments to determine its mass. The force of a magnet on an electron (mass m_e) is F_B = m_e a_B = qvB, where v is the velocity of the electron perpendicular to a magnetic field of
      • Re:.002% change (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Enrique1218 (603187)
        Ah yes, you use the force to describe the mass. I am familiar with those experiment. But, they relied on macroscopic force to describe mass which may be problematic when applied to a single electron and the spectra which come from the discrete energy level that arises from the Hamiltonian that assumes mass is invariant (which it probally is compared to the potential). So again, what is mass? You mention distance which in our own perception is the separation between two points. How do you phyically describe
  • Didn't the other not-so-constant constant have something to do with light? If so the light from the quasar be affected by this?
  • by i_want_you_to_throw_ (559379) on Friday April 21, 2006 @01:03PM (#15174728) Homepage Journal
    and says ....
    "I think I have lost an electron!"

    Another atom asks..
    "Are you sure?"

    The atom says
    "I'm positive!"

    I'll be here all week, enjoy the veal.....

  • by DrugCheese (266151) on Friday April 21, 2006 @01:04PM (#15174742)
    is change.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Constants aren't, variables won't.
  • ...about contestant's incontinence? Why would I want to know about that? That's disgusting. We should be talking about more impor....


    Never mind.
  • The PRL paper (Score:3, Informative)

    by jlkelley (35651) on Friday April 21, 2006 @01:08PM (#15174785)
    For those interested in the actual paper (Phys. Rev. Lett. 96), the PDF is available on the researcher's publications page: []
  • Mind-blowing... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fritzk3 (883083)
    No, not that the constant might not be constant. What's mind-blowing is that an article posted by Zonk might actually be more than mere tripe... possibly even worth reading! Man, maybe the universe *IS* just that screwed-up!
  • FORTRAN (Score:5, Funny)

    by Detritus (11846) on Friday April 21, 2006 @01:57PM (#15175298) Homepage
    And they said that the ability to change the values of constants at run-time was a bug. Ha! Take that, you quiche eaters.
  • What is mass? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wanerious (712877) on Friday April 21, 2006 @02:03PM (#15175375) Homepage
    The results are potentially interesting, though I'm initially skeptical of *any* measurement of phenomena back at this redshift claiming accuracy to some tiny fraction of a percent. And, to be picky, astronomers virtually never say that an object is "12 billion ly away" --- we usually refer to their "location" via the redshift number, as this is easy and unambiguous.

    But a change in the ratio of their masses might shed some light on exactly what mass is to begin with. Yes, it's the ability to curve space, and also the resistance to being accelerated. But never mind the p/e ratio being fixed, no one really understands why the individual values are what they are to begin with.

    For example, something that always gets me is the muon. Identical to the electron in virtually every way (charge, apparent point-like non-structure, lepton) except is has a mass roughly 207 times as great. Why? What does it have 207 times more of than the electron does to make it 207 times more efficient at curving space? What kind of goo is there that makes it 207 times more resistant to acceleration? And if it's truly a fundamental particle, as we suspect for leptons, why 207-point-something?

    It nags at me.

  • Remember when the force of gravity was a constant?

    Well for simple calculations about things on the earth's surface it still is, but as soon as you widen your perspective a little bit you have to start reworking where that number comes from. I don't see how this is much different than that. They look a little further and realize another 'constant' can also vary based on some principle they will hopefully figure out later with more observation.
  • To me it sounds like these values aren't actually constants but more like global variables. No matter where you are, at any one time the value is the same. So it is constant with respect to position, motion, etc. However, across time the value can change... but it will change universally so that it remains "constant" (in the sense that I mentioned before hand).

    Of course this is unfortunate because this means any sufficiently sophisticated simulator will require global variables to run. Dijkstra will be agh

    • No matter where you are, at any one time the value is the same.

      The concept of "any one time no matter where you are" is inconsistent with general relativity. Granted, GR has not been reconciled with quantum mechanics, but on the scale of galaxies Einstein still hasn't been proven wrong.

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