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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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  • "There is absolutely no reason these constants should be constant," says astronomer Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "These are famous numbers in physics, but we have no real reason for why they are what they are."
    Well, I'm a computer scientist not a physicist but I thought these constants are present because all observations so far have verified that. We aren't able to make observations from several million or billion years ago so we cannot tell whether or not these constants change or at what rate. Our instruments are not precise enough to do that nor have they been around long enough.

    I recall reading that as a universe expands or contracts, the constants would theoretically change to adjust to the expansion or contraction of the basic building blocks of matter.

    Not all quasar data is consistent with variations. In 2004, a group of astronomers -- including Patrick Petitjean of the Astrophysical Institute of Paris -- found no change in the fine structure constant using quasar spectra from the Very Large Telescope in Chile. No one has yet explained the discrepancy with the Keck telescope results. "These measurements are so difficult and at the extreme end of what can be achieved by the telescopes that it is very difficult to answer this question," Petitjean says.
    Is it possible that the measuring instruments failed here? I thought that was always a possibility in observations. Is it also possible that the quasars we are observing are differing light years away and thus we are making observations based on data from several billion years ago (as the article states)?

    "We have an incomplete theory, so you look for holes that will point to a new theory," Murphy says. Varying constants may be just such a hole.
    Yes, I think that there is call for speculation on the constants varying over billions of years since the light we are observing is roughly 12 billion years old and all our observations here on earth remain static.
  • by MrNougat ( 927651 ) <{ckratsch} {at} {}> on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:16PM (#15706439)
    Scientists Question Laws of Nature

    Isn't "questioning laws of nature" by definition what scientists do? Question, hypothesis, experiment, theory, law, lather, rinse, repeat - right?
  • scientific method (Score:3, Insightful)

    by lazarusdishwasher ( 968525 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:18PM (#15706460)
    Doesn't the scientific method say that when the answers don't fit you need to ask why and go throught the steps again? I rember learning in my high school chemistry class that pv=nrt and my teacher said that higher levels of chemistry don't use that formula because it is just sort of a rough guide to gasses. If my chemistry teacher was right I would guess that scientists figured out the easy formula once and fine tuned it as they gained knowledge and better instruments.
  • Err.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by brian0918 ( 638904 ) <`brian0918' `at' `'> on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:30PM (#15706552)
    "We aren't able to make observations from several million or billion years ago so we cannot tell whether or not these constants change or at what rate."

    Look out at the stars. You're seeing them as they appeared several million or billion years ago. The light that you now see from the sun is 8 minutes old, for comparison. All the data we collect from outer space is historical information--how the universe was in the past.
  • by Mac Degger ( 576336 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:38PM (#15706601) Journal
    Option 1 has always been true. Not since the quantum crisis have scientists been that arrogant to assume that their theories are set in stone; we're constantly refining the models to fit reality better and better. Hell, even if we finally accomodate all the forces into one model, we'll assume that that model will eventually be surpased by one which is better and more precise. Modern science is based on the fact that we realise we're pretty much never 100% correct.
  • Re:Chaos Theory (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MustardMan ( 52102 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:39PM (#15706608)
    however for a large percentage of things tested the differences are so small they are negligible

    This is an incorrect interpretation. Some things are chaotic, and some are not. Things that are chaotic have regimes where they behave chaotically and regimes where they do not.

    Also, you don't need a fart or butterfly wing to make a coupled pendulum sensitive to initial conditions, the simple fact that it's impossible to exactly replicate the position is enough. any difference, even a single atom's width, will lead to paths in phase space which eventually diverge.
  • by Pinkybum ( 960069 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:39PM (#15706609)
    Scientific theories form two main purposes: 1. They are useful at predicting how things will behave (e.g. important for NASA) 2. They provide a framework to show the way for future work. Einstein's axioms of constancy were constructs built from empirical evidence which yielded some interesting and very useful insights into the way things worked. They also showed potential paths forward which Einstein himself pursued until his death. Einstein himself knew his theories were not the last word and any scientist knows this is a fundamental philosophy of the scientific method. The rest of the world can pretend there is something else sensational going on if they want to but it isn't science.
  • by Thangodin ( 177516 ) <> on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @12:43PM (#15706653) Homepage
    If option (2) is true, it means that the scientists in question will be metaphorically shot by the scientific community for daring to question the great reletivity laws, and remove bad scientists from the community.

    No, they won't be shot. Stephen Hawking has challenged Einstein's theories and been wrong about nearly everything he's ever proposed, and he's still considered a good physicist. It's okay to challenge the dominant theory, just as long as you have good evidence to back it up, and your theory explains something that nothing else does. Bad science is done with poor or no evidence, explains even less than the current theory, and is usually presented to the general public without peer review. When confronted with evidence that proves their theory false, good scientists concede, while bad scientists wail on about scientific orthodoxy and appeal to popular opinion.
  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:05PM (#15706836) Homepage Journal
    This is true of almost every simple equation that gets called a "law," is the problem. Newton's laws? Well-known to be imperfect approximations, but they work well for almost every real-world engineering task. Boyle's law? Only covers the non-existent "ideal gas," and only applies macroscopically, and within a range of temperature and pressure such that phase changes aren't a concern -- but it's remarkable how well off-the-cuff calculations suing it work. Etc.
  • by jma34 ( 591871 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:17PM (#15706957)
    ...highly model-dependent.

    This is really the crux of a measurement. How many assumptions from the model are used to make the measurement? In an ideal experiment, the measurement itself is what verifies or falsifies the model, but in reality there are usually other parameters that are needed as inputs to the experiment that are computed using the model, thus the model dependence. I'm in experimental high energy particle physics and we worry about this every day, and try to reduce the number of theoretical inputs needed to make sense of our data. I'm sure the astronomers do likewise, but sometimes inputs are unavoidable. This doesn't make the measurement invalid because a model should be self consistent as well. So if you correctly compute the inputs using the model, and your results still differ from the model then some double checking of everything needs to be done because the model is showing a flaw. The true size of the flaw is the really hard thing to quantify because all of the quatities are model-dependent. In the end this could turn out to be nothing or the start of something.

    I welcome all chinks in scientific theories because it generally leads to new scientific understanding and a new round of theories and models. Really that's what science is all about. In my field, we all hope that the LHC finds the Higgs, that will solidify the Standard Model, but we also hope that it finds lots of things that don't fit the Standard Model, that would point the direction for future discovery. If we didn't find anything unusual at the LHC it might put a huge damper on particle physics, and I'd have to switch areas of research.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:18PM (#15706970)
    Sorry, have to refute this, as first explained by newton.

    The Jupiter ball will indeed 'exert more gravity force', however, the extra masses involve require extra energy to accelerate. Drop a 1kg ball, 9.8m/s/s. drop a 2 kg ball, 9.8m/s/s. Twice the mass in the 2kg, but twice the force required to create the same acceleration.

    You are wrong, have a nice day
  • Remember: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pingveno ( 708857 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @01:19PM (#15706977)
    What these scientists have found isn't necessarily correct. There has to be more evidence before it gets to having enough evidence to be get it to established theory.
  • I'm sacrificing modding you up for an attaboy. On of my areas of interest is the philosophy of science, especially the epitemology of science (how can we know empircal fact x). I find physicists who are willing to admit that law does not equal fact, and that math does not equal universe, refreshing. It seems many of the physicists I know don't want to question the fundamentals of their discipline (they are so busy doing physics, that they never question what that means). One of my best friends is finishing up her schooling in physics and math, we get in large arguments about how our understanding of physics does not mirror how things are with certanty.

    I'm not saying science is arbitrary, far from it. I think with each revolution and paradigm change we sprial in closer to the point of parity with actual physical fact (though I doubt our knowledge will ever be completely certain, or complete). I don't think there will ever be a point where there is nothing new, or no new fact to through the whole scientific mess into disarry again.

    It seems to be a thing of great confusion with many physicists, and scientists, that the models that they create are nothing but that, models. E=mc^2 does not exist in reality, it exists as an abstraction in the mind of Man, it is a model of observed process (or deduced, in this case).

    That said, needlessly, I do like your pragmatic statement. Newton is valid here, Einstein becomes more valid (in terms of application) under the incluence of strong gravitation or high acceleration (and relativistic speeds), Quantum physics become valid when we shrink down below the point where gravitation plays an important role.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @02:30PM (#15707602)
    A 1kg ball dropped on a earth ball will accerelate 9.8 m/s/s and an earth ball dropped on a 1kg ball will accerelate very slowly, like [SMALL NUMBER] m/s/s. However when both balls are not fixed in space, they will fall towards each other resulting in a combined accerelation >9.8 m/s/s. Since planets are not fixed, an observer on the planet finds that heavier objects appear to fall faster.

  • by Rudisaurus ( 675580 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @04:34PM (#15708628)
    The wording of both is quite correct. Scientists ARE finding differences in the values of the constants that they extract from data from different sources. However, the reason for that variation is unclear and therefore as yet indeterminate. One possibility is measurement error; another is that they (the values of the physical "constants") are time-dependent -- i.e. they MAY actually be variable.

    See -- it's perfectly simple! : )
  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) ( 613870 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @06:16PM (#15709219) Journal
    Do they think it's correct or not?
    They all start with caveats. They point out that gravitons are missing. The first article points out that the model is applicable over a wide range, not a fundamental theory that purports to explain all physical phenomena. Compare with a statement like "quantum mechanics is one of the pillars of modern physics" in Wikipedia's article on Quantum Mechanics. Even the last article you quote, which looks like it's aimed at kids, is happy to point out lots of issues with SM []. I think it's pretty clear that the Standard Model has a quite different status in the eyes of physicists to theories like QM and GR. For example many physicists study all kinds of models that are not based on SM, for example String Theory. But very few physicists study alternatives to QM or GR. Studying alternatives to SM is standard stuff, studying alternatives to GR and QM is controversial.

    Maybe the problem you point out is in the popular press. They have a habit of making science stories seem absolute, and then take great delight in reporting when these absolutes no longer seem to be valid. But that problem doesn't just apply to SM.

    And offtoptic, but I have to mention it. Why, since a month or so ago, do I have to use <P><P> for my first paragraph break but just a single <P> thereafter. It's very annoying!

1000 pains = 1 Megahertz