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Scientists Question Laws of Nature 314

mknewman writes "MSNBC is reporting that scientists are finding differences in many of the current scientific 'constants' including the speed of light, alpha (the fine structure constant of the magnetic force), the ratio of proton to electron mass and several others. These findings were made by observing quasars and comparing the results to tests here on the earth." From the article: "Time-varying constants of nature violate Einstein's equivalence principle, which says that any experiment testing nuclear or electromagnetic forces should give the same result no matter where or when it is performed. If this principle is broken, then two objects dropped in a gravitational field should fall at slightly different rates. Moreover, Einstein's gravitational theory -- general relativity -- would no longer be completely correct, Martins says."
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Scientists Question Laws of Nature

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:15PM (#15706434)
    filthy law breaking unearthly quasars should be hunted down and expelled from the galaxy.
    Funny enough, they are most likely galaxies themselves and definitely NOT part of ours.
  • Re:Filota? (Score:4, Informative)

    by NewbieProgrammerMan ( 558327 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:16PM (#15706436)
    Do you mean philote [], or am I just missing something? Either way, physicists might object to your use of the word "we." :)
  • This isn't new (Score:5, Informative)

    by whitehatlurker ( 867714 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:19PM (#15706469) Journal
    Apart from the time scale involved, this isn't all that new. Scientific American had an article [] on this over a year ago.
  • by HateBreeder ( 656491 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:28PM (#15706524)
    Just to point out,
    There is no such thing as "Ohm's Law", in the sense of a "Law".
    It's just a rough estimate to Maxwell's Equations under certain conditions.
    Which, themselves are rough estimates to behaviors described by Quantum Mechanics.

  • by Darren Hiebert ( 626456 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:35PM (#15706578) Homepage

    Einstein's gravitational theory -- general relativity -- would no longer be completely correct, Martins says.

    First of all, let me preface this by saying IAAP (I am a physicist):

    All this talk of laws being "wrong" or no longer "correct" is just popular fluff the press either hypes or makes up.

    No physical law is ever completely correct. A physical law is simply a description of reality to the degree to which we understand it, and is "correct" (i.e. produces predicitions which fit our measurements) within the realm of our present experience of the phenomenon it describes. As our understanding and experience of a phenomenon grows to encompass a wider range of circumstances (e.g. scale, velocity), the law needs to be either refined or replaced with new law, possibly based upon a new paradigm.

    Newton's laws of motion are no less "correct" now than they ever were. Einstein determined that the realm in which they accurately described reality did not include large velocities near the speed of light (i.e. >0.1c). Quantum mechanics explained how at small scales these same rules no longer applied. Even today, no one yet knows how to reconcile the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics when their realms overlap--this is still pioneering work.

    Yet Newton's laws are still taught as the foundation of physics to all new students because they are still valid within the realm or experience in which all of our normal lives are conducted. Models, and the laws derived with them, are valid only within the realm of experience within which they were formed (and, if the inventer is lucky, they hold even beyond that). And they remain valid within that realm even when we find later than they don't hold outside that realm. Even Aristotle's belief that heavier objects fall faster than light objects is valid to a point (within a realm where air friction is a significant contributor), even though Galileo later "proved" this was wrong (i.e. it is not a general law).

  • by metamatic ( 202216 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:42PM (#15706648) Homepage Journal
    It's not so much "incorrect" as "impossible to test" or "irrelevant", because gravity is 17 orders of magnitude weaker than the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces which dominate at the atomic and subatomic scales.
  • by wanerious ( 712877 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:53PM (#15706746) Homepage
    How do we figure out how far away they are? By measuring the redshift in the frequencies of their spectra. What do we use for that? The relativistic Doppler formula.

    Only at pretty low redshift, though. At any redshift appreciably close to or greater than 1, there really isn't much meaning to "distance" --- would you interpret that distance to be at the time of emission, the time of detection, or somewhere in between? We basically just use the cosmological redshift, which says that the redshift z represents how much the universe has expanded since the radiation was emitted. That's it. Any "distance" or lookback time is model-dependent. Instead of measuring slight deviations in universal constants, they are perhaps measuring perturbations in a particular cosmological model.

    In other words, the distance of the quasars -- and the frequency their light "should" be -- are highly model-dependent.

    Right --- I'm just picking nits, since I've seen lots of confusion by others in similar reports.

  • by Artfldgr ( 844531 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:54PM (#15706747)
    in the post text you read:
    "scientists are finding differences in many of the current scientific 'constants'"

    in the article the sentence says:
    "Recent research has found evidence that the value of certain fundamental parameters, such as the speed of light or the invisible glue that holds nuclei together, may have been different in the past."

    whats the use if people cant tell the difference between MAY and ARE?

    there is a big difference between "you MAY die this week" and "you ARE to die this week"

    i know, its all relative, and i know what they meant... but you know what? thats not true. i opened this because i thought the may actually turned to an are... a possibliity realized. when i get there, its still may, and people cant even read basically.
  • by Gospodin ( 547743 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:11PM (#15706898)

    Let's also not forget that Einstein was one of the founders of quantum mechanics! He won his Nobel Prize for work on the photoelectric effect, which helped prove that light was quantized, not for anything he did with Relativity. Sources: [], []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:18PM (#15706967)
    I feel like the Standard Model is irrevocably broken.

    You don't get a Nobel for pointing out it's broken. You get the Nobel for pointing out the replacement.

    Physisists like the SM because it's the best we've got. They'll dump it like a ton of bricks when something demonstably better* comes along.

    * and string theory isn't there yet.
  • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @02:25PM (#15707562)
    The article doesn't go into detail but I suspect the changes they're observing are a bit more subtle than the redshift not being exactly what they thought it might be. Note also that they're not talking about the speed of light or the strength of the electromagnetic force, but rather the fine structure constant, which is a unitless RATIO of two constants.

    I expect what they're observing is not all of the spectral lines being in the wrong place (as you'd get with different redshifts) but rather SOME of them being out by a bit.

    For example, suppose the light you're observing went through a big hydrogen cloud ten billion years ago then another one half a billion years ago. You get one set of hydrogen absorption lines pretty much where you expect (from the more recent encounter) and one not quite where you expect (ie not in the same place as the other). That implies that something weird went on with the electromagnetism, perhaps the force weakening or light slowing down, but you can't tell which.

    Undoubtedly that example is oversimplified too, but you'd have to wade through the paper to find out. The article on is a bit better about explaining why you can't just look at the speed of light -- your measuring stick might change or depend on something else, as you pointed out.
  • Not that new (Score:2, Informative)

    by Gat0r30y ( 957941 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @02:38PM (#15707667) Homepage Journal
    Joao Magueigo wrote a really great book predicting this about 5 years ago. Check it out []. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
  • No it Doesn't!!! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Tired and Emotional ( 750842 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @03:16PM (#15707996)
    The blurb opined:

    Time-varying constants of nature violate Einstein's equivalence principle, which says that any experiment testing nuclear or electromagnetic forces should give the same result no matter where or when it is performed.

    No it doesn't

    The principle of equivalence, more properly called the principle of covariance, says that the laws of physics can be expressed covariantly. This means that your co-ordinate system does not matter. Actually you have to make sure you take derivatives in a physically meaningful way rather than just relative to your arbitary co-ordinates.

    But this is entirely a local principle. It does not mean that an experiment performed in one place will give the same results as the same experiment performed elsewhere.

    For example, observe cepheid variables from down a gravity well!

    The principle of equivalence in its limited form (that leads on to the principle of covariance) says you can't tell the difference between acceleration and gravity. Once again this is a local phenomenum because in an elevator (or other closed box) of non-trivial size, you can distinguish them by observing the curvature associated with gravity.

  • You and I are on the same side--unfortunately, a lot of the physical community is not. How many times have you heard or read something to the effect of: "[T]he Standard Model is a well established theory applicable over a wide range of conditions."(1) Or maybe: "To date, almost all experimental tests of the three forces described by the Standard Model have agreed with its predictions."(2) How's about: "Experiments have verified its predictions to incredible precision, and all the particles predicted by this theory have been found."(3)

    I didn't argue that it's fundamental, whatever that means; I argued that physicists love the hell out of it because it's so accurate. I've just always considered its importance overblown because a lot of it is twisted to match the data. I'm not joking when I write that the community is considering adding ten more free variables to it. That's what they need to make neutrino oscillation work. You tell me, if everyone and their dog thinks it's a kludged up piece of shit, why does it still get accolades like those I've quoted--normally only with the caveat that "it doesn't cover gravity?" Do they think it's correct or not?

    1. l []
    2. []
    3. meless/standard_model.html []
  • If you want to learn about nuclear weapons, visit the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. It's an incredible resource for learning about them.

    But to answer your question, compressing the bomb's core doesn't make the EM force affect the Strong force. It makes the material dense enough to start a divergent chain reaction, where each nuclear fission causes more than one more fission. Huge amounts of energy are released because when the atoms split, the sum of the mass and nuclear binding energy of the smaller fragments is less than that of the original Pu/U nucleus. The difference shows up as gamma radiation, neutrons, and a spray of other subatomic particles.

"You stay here, Audrey -- this is between me and the vegetable!" -- Seymour, from _Little Shop Of Horrors_