back to article Is the electromagnetic constant a constant?

Could yet another universal constant, the value assigned to the electromagnetic force, be less constant than we thought? And could variability of the constant help explain life in the universe? That’s the tantalizing hypothesis offered by Australian astronomers, who believe that the value alpha, referring to the strength of …


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  1. Mike007

    I am offended by the fact that you think you can do something offensive then just put "no offence" at the end and think that is OK!

    1. Annihilator


      I'm offended at people being referred to as "scientists" and not "boffins". Ricky Gervais pales into insignificance in terms of slights.

  2. Simon_E

    Avoiding α

    Is one thing. 'σ' is another. (It's a lowercase - but not word-final - Sigma (Σ).)

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      I just thought the Greeks were charging for the use of their letters, you know, just to start balancing the books

  3. Hardcastle the ancient

    not again

    This seems a bit of a canard:

    "Do I believe the paper? The short answer is No."

    Ok, he is an unknown blogger. But he makes sense.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


      >Lubos Motl

      >unknown blogger

      More like well-known foul-mouthed fanboi of Stringy Theories. Apparently he is ok in Real Life though.

      1. Robert E A Harvey

        >Apparently he is ok in Real Life though.

        Most of us are, thank $DEITY

  4. Robert E A Harvey

    fine structure

    This is the fine structure constant yes/no?

    If so it is known (defined?) to be a ratio between electron charge, Planck constant, speed of light, & permativity/permeability of free space.

    So which of these is also varying around the dipole? Seems like we only got half the story.

    Sounds like a new type of michelson-morley to me.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      I've read various papers that suggest that the speed of light is not constant (although this suggested that it varied as the matter in the universe condensed), and that permativity of free space changes (although I can't remember the details of where/when).

      I also saw a good documentary on the measurement of α ("alpha" for facebook readers) and this touched on the possibility of it not being constant over the life of the universe (although maybe this part of the documentary came from some of these guys.

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Theorists have long speculated that any and all of the "fundamental constants" might not be constant at all points in space-time. However, its kinda tough to build a working theory if you don't know which constants are varying and by how much.

        On the face of it, this looks like some experimental evidence that might help. Maybe not too much, though, since "very distant" also means "very old" and "lots of unknown stuff in between" so we have rather a lot of uncontrolled variables.

  5. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Well if this is in fact correct it puts a dirty great hole in the idea that life is special because some 'entity' made sure the conditions were exactly right.

    1. Graham Dawson

      Or it boosts it, by providing evidence that the entity in question crafted a cosmos with a high degree of variability within certain bounds that would provide both safe areas for life to thrive and other, interesting areas from which they could gain insight and knowledge and ultimately understanding of their role.

      Or you could put the "lets poke fun at people who believe different things to me" snottiness aside and just enjoy an interesting and potentially very important scientific discovery.

      Assuming it isn't instrumental problems, which it may be...

    2. defiler Silver badge


      I'm not a God-bothering pixie-chaser by any stretch, but I have to say that Graham's argument appeals more to me than your's.

      It's not often I'll say this, but +1 for the religious argument. Good point, well scored.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    “I don’t see any other possibility, other than systematic effects in the data,” he said.

    Of course that's one hell of a possibility, particularly when you consider that he had two telescopes facing opposite directions, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere, and one of them produced all the above-expected measurements of alpha and the other produced the below-expected values. Quite a coincidence that they just happened to have been built aligned with the universal dipole, no? I think they just weren't calibrated correctly against each other.

    1. Steve Knox


      1. He did use two telescopes: Keck and VLT

      2. The two telescopse are in different hemispheres, but they do not face in opposite directions. They are separated by 45 degrees of latitude. This means that their vectors diverge by half of a right angle.

      3. While (2) does mean that they observe different areas of the sky, there is some overlap, some of which was used in the study.

      4. Both telescopes produced both above- and below-expected measurements.

      5. The dipole is not in alignment with the vector of either telescope.

      All of this I got from reading the full abstract from arxiv. Pay close attention to fig.5 (supplementary at the end of the pdf) -- it summarizes most of the points above nicely.

  7. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Red shift?

    But looking at stuff with extreme red shifts means they are at extreme distances. And so we are looking at events in the Universe's distant past. Back then, alpha may indeed have been different. But it could very well have been different in the vicinity of the Earth as well. Back before the complex molecular interactions we depend upon were important. So it might be more accurate to say that we (and those distant aliens) happen to live in a time that is conducive to life. Not a region.

    Some alien astrophysicist on a planet orbiting that distant star with (what we observe to be) anomalous red shifts doesn't see them now. But when he (I know, presumptuous of me to apply our gender specific pronouns to aliens) looks toward earth, he may observe the same differences from what he presumes to be essential for life. In our distant past. And writes our end of the Universe off as uninhabitable. And he thanks his local God for blessing his race as special.

    1. MacroRodent Silver badge

      Re: Red shift?

      If that age is the reason, the alpha value should appear to change the same way when the distance increases, no matter which way you look. But these guys claim the value is different when looking at regions in different directions.

  8. jake Silver badge

    The ringing from the big bang is observable elsewhere.

    Could be that. Or, perhaps, an effect of long-distance and dark matter.

    Or simply inadequate instrumentation measuring a high noise/low signal data stream ... which would be my guess. Lex parsimoniae[1] & all that.

    [1] Occam's razor, for the illiterate amongst all y'all.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Actually, I suspect those here who have read the works of William Ockham are far more literate than those who can only quote a couple of latin buzzwords.

      Delphinum natare doces & all that.

      1. Liam Johnson

        Dolphin in sweet cream sauce?

        1. pepper

          You teach the dolphin to swim?

          Go go google translate, im quite sure its wrong.

          1. jake Silver badge

            No, pepper, the translation is correct.

            In English, it translates roughly to "don't teach your Granny to suck eggs".

      2. Chemist

        I prefer the quote attributed to Einstein ..

        which (roughly) is ..

        "In science everything should be as simple as possible ...but no simpler"

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        So long!

        And thanks for all the fish.

      4. jake Silver badge

        @AC 08:28 ... Fish swim.

        Dolphins don't swim (being air breathers); rather they float with propulsion.

        In this light, think about what I wrote. And why.

        Gawd/ess, why do I bother ... Maybe I should stop tilting at windmills.

        Age quod agis ... or perhaps castigat ridendo mores is more appropriate ;-)

  9. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge

    He may have discovered the direction from which the Thargiod invasion fleet is coming.

  10. JDX Gold badge

    @Will Godfrey

    As a Physicist and a Bible-believing christian, I don't think so. Scientific atheists (or more commonly atheists who claim to understand science and Christianity but are in reality rather ignorant of both) like to claim believers use God to fill in the gaps science hasn't yet explained. That WOULD be a very weak position, but it's not accurate. The two are not incompatible.

    1. SuperTim

      The bible.

      It's rather thin on the ground, physics-wise. It has a bit of chemistry (phase-change of water when in contact with Jesus' feet, Spontaneous change of Oxidane to Merlot in Caanan-based weddings) and some biology (Asexual reproduction based on Rib metamorphosis, and the best one, taking two of each animal onto an ark, without having any way to reliably sex some of these animals).

      I find that the whole concept of religion incredibly stupid. Some people wrote some stories, those stories were accepted or rejected in 300AD and only the accepted ones are the absolute truth?

      No, I will stick to Science and not claim that religion can play a part.

      1. Sam Liddicott


        Sadly you've just emphasised the point that you were contesting; and for easy points I refer to your use of "whole" as in "whole concept of religion". I don't see that anyone who can justifiably use the world "whole" in that sense could come up with such a simple conclusion.

        There is an old joke, the deist says to the atheist: "This god you don't believe in... I don't believe in him either"

        The religionists and anti-religionists generally spend their time fighting each-others shadows.

        Meanwhile the true scientists, deists and philosophers carry on with their search for truth.

      2. Chemist

        "taking two of each animal onto an ark"

        Leading to totally inbred animals

        1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart


          Noah's approach was a bit hit and miss to me..... 2 of each or maybe 7 or even 20 depending on where you look ; Genesis 6:19-20, 2 or 20 and Genesis 7:2-3; every clean animal by sevens... ...not clean two...

          At least Dr Merkwurkdigliebe adopted as slightly more scientific approach

          And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills. Of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. But ah with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present gross national product within say, twenty years.

          1. Chemist

            As a total aside..

            I wouldn't have known you in my former life as Von K by any chance ?

            If you don't immediately know what I mean that's fine - Von K isn't you

        2. Tom 13

          typical aethist, just like the devil

          never quotes the entire thing directly. It's not 2 of each animal, it's two of each UNCLEAN animal an 7 of each CLEAN.

          Now if you ascribe to Darwinism, which by definition us Bible thumpers don't, there isn't actually a problem with this and the inbred animals, because you are closer to the "pure" un-mutated genes the further back in time you go, and since this happened back near creation time, you wouldn't have the same inbreeding problems you would today.

          1. Chemist

            But ...

            they're NOT all inbred today ( including pigs). So where did they come from ?

          2. jake Silver badge

            OK, Tom 13, I'll bite.

            Which version of the Genesis myth do you believe in? The one that starts at Gen1.1 and runs to 2.3, or the one that begins at Gen2.4 and runs through 2.25? They are clearly completely different in concept, and can't both be accurate.

          3. Shakje

            Tom, just curious

            Would you consider the last two Popes as Christian or not?

      3. Andy Fletcher

        The thing is...

        Where historically gods were used to explain anything that was not understood, the situation changed after QM. QM gaves us a bunch of answers, but also told us that there are some things we will just never know. I'm not religous, but do see that there's a space for God which science will simply never fill.

    2. Shakje


      See, what you're doing here is assuming that all believers share your views of their religion, where the sad fact is that many do not have the first clue about how to be the littlest bit open-minded, and by that, I mean willing to challenge their beliefs in light of what they see. I know someone who has switched from theist to atheist to theist to atheist, and at all times I respected him, because each switch was driven by his quest for truth, not by simply looking at the facts and assuming you know the answers already, which, when it comes to science, is what religious types have been doing since the very first human looked at the rain and said "I bet someone's up there peeing on my head". The majority of believers do *not* try to resolve their religion with science, they don't see any need to, so they just quite happily assume things that do not work. Like believing the stories of Noah, or that the world was created in six literal days, or that prophecy occurs, or that things in their life are happening because some being is interacting with them, rather than it just being down to luck, or that prayer actually works, or that faith healing isn't a scam, or that exorcism actually purifies people of demons, or that this world isn't actually real and you can manipulate it with your mind.

      The figures on creationism surveys in the US that Dawkins thoroughly enjoys quoting show just how many religious people really don't see their religion as compatible with science, and I would suspect that, unless you're a Deist (I don't see much point in being a Deist, it doesn't really add anything useful), there *is* a boundary at which your religion is not compatible with science. Maybe you don't find abiogenesis to be very likely, or maybe you won't accept an explanation for the big bang that isn't your god, but at some point you have decided that taking god as an explanation is more important than asking further questions.

      Even if you just look at your texts you'll see things that fly in the way of physics. So (apologies if I'm wrong), assuming you're a Christian, how do you explain the miracles that Jesus performed in a scientific context? You *have* to do this if you think there's no disconnect between religion and science. Even if you say "well my god is all powerful so it's supernatural and all that", that's just not good enough. If that's what happened then something physical *did* happen, and if you can't provide a better explanation than it didn't actually happen (magic isn't a valid alternative), then your science is in direct conflict with your religious beliefs.

      In short, if you believe in the Flood then you're not resolving science and religion, but if you don't (by maybe calling it just a story) then there will be a huge number of people who will call you a heretic.

  11. Scott Broukell


    does this electromagnetic dipole fit neatly with the newly discovered dipole / axis around which our expanding (accelerating) universe is found to be spinning perchance ? My money would be on yes!

  12. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    Red-shift / velocity / distance / time

    I thought that the identification of red-shift / velocity uses the "fact" that spectral lines are "constant", and therefore if they are in the wrong place, then there must be red-shift caused by things moving relative to us. This gives us the theory that the universe is expanding.

    Also the knowledge that certain types of star produce exactly the same output, so by measuring the light received from this type of star, we can know how far away they are; and hence when that light left the star. However both of these require that various things are constant, so that this type of star always has the same mass when it novas, and also that the speed of light is constant to know the distance. This gives us the theory that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

    Of course; these require all the constants to be, constant, and that means constant over the whole universe, and constant over the entire age of the universe. If these constants are not constant, then maybe the theories need to be looked at. Where is the "my brain hurts" icon?

    1. Annihilator

      One missing

      I thought that too, but then remembered that it's also possible to measure the distance of stars using trigonometry based on it's position in the sky compared with where we are (measure the angles once in spring, once 6 months later - your reference points are now 300,000,000km apart and you can draw a very slim triangle and solve for the "height")

      1. Tom 13

        Yeah, but even with our historical knowledge and modern technology

        the number of stars to which we can calculate the distance based on trig functions is really very, very small. Most of it is done on the basis of red-shifting and the assumption of constant emission lines. Yeah, Astro has a lot of very circular calculating. It's part of what makes it so challenging as a field of science. Most scientists can put their hands on what they are testing. Even the nuclear guys can build experiments for the stuff they can't touch. Astro, we'll we've got everything observed from Copernicus on, and a few bits and pieces before that, but very few experiments for which apparatuses can be made. It's mostly thought stuff, and that's where Plato went wrong too. Astro folk get just enough experimentation to keep them honest.

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        not quite

        only for close stars. Go outside the local area and the angles are too small to measure. And all of the above assumes red shift only map to distance and is constant in effect. Both reasonable assumptions, but not easily testable.

        1. Tom 13

          For purposes of testing the red shift hypothesis,

          you can extract some information from binary pairs, especially pulsars. It depends on tracking the wobble of the light signature and calculating the masses of the stars so you can determine the orbital periods. Probably a few other things that I don't recall after 20 some years. But the results agreed well with the red-shift hypothesis, and elevated it to an established fact from which you could work other hypotheses.

          1. Michael Chester

            A couple ways of doing redshifts

            Spectral lines are one, the other major one is finding some stellar object with a consistent spectrum, finding lots of examples of it, then comparing the shift of the entire spectral profile.

            I would also presume that the shift in the lines is one that cannot be accounted for by redshift alone (i.e. it scales differently). Too late in the evening to have a look at the paper though.

  13. Michael Friesen

    Using symbols vs. words for "alpha"

    I think it's absolutely fine to use a mixture of symbols and words. After all, as Aldous Huxley noted, "They can't all be alphas."

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stop being confusing!

    "the fine structure constant alpha increases at high redshifts"

    Huh, what?

    “fits a spatial dipole, significant at the 4.2σ level”

    Ah, I get it now, why didn't you start by saying that.

    "in other words, the constant’s value increases a little in one direction and falls in the other"

    What? You lost me again!

  15. ~mico

    It may just be...

    ...That in areas where our kind of life is impossible due to different chemistry, other kinds of complex chemical or energy systems might arise. One of the reason we are based on carbon instead of silicon, is that silicon bonds are of different strength. Perhaps in other places silicon is more suitable? Same goes for other elements.

    The scary thing, however, is that a possibility of anisotropic (changing with location) constants opens up a possibility of anisochronic (changing with time) constants, in other words, that alpha might change in our region in the future, obliterating life as it does. We don't even know how large the change has to be to affect such a complex creature as ourselves. Not to mention the remote possibility of artificially changing said constants.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      As life arose at least 3 billion years ago

      I do not think anything is changing in a big hurry.

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    You wait for 1 experiment to (potentially) undermine large parts of modern physics

    Then 2 come along together.

    On a more serious note I think anything that shows "universal" physical constants are *not* universal is pretty interesting, firstly that they do, secondly by how much.

    But as always extraordinary claims require extraordinary *data* to back them up (and error control procedures to prove they are not instrument effects).

    1. Robert E A Harvey

      The /really/ interesting question is

      "OK - certain fundamentals are not fixed after all. Can we /manipulate/ them?

      1. Ru

        "Can we /manipulate/ them?"

        Well, that would depend very much on what we're looking at. The force of gravity varies depending on where you stand, but the underlying process that causes this is the same everywhere (as far as we can tell, anyway) and the rules that govern that process remain constant. Varying values of alpha could be the visible effects of some underlying mechanism in the same way, no?

        What is rather more interesting to contemplate is whether this underlying phenomenon might represent a universal frame of reference, something which does not fit very well with our understanding (see also, relativity).

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Speedy reporting

    This was reported in August 2010 by the economist.

    1. hplasm Silver badge


      but you can't take the work of economists these days, and it takes a while to check everything...

  18. Paolo Marini
    IT Angle

    yours or mine?

    why is most of the article written in two lines paragraphs?

    I found that offensive and I will not be renewing the subscription!

  19. dotdavid
    Thumb Up


    "Actually, Dr John Webb of the University of NSW School of Physics has formed a stronger opinion about alpha"

    Don't understand much of this sciency stuff, but the University of Not Suitable for Work sounds like a fun place to study it.

    1. Armando 123

      I bet they're always trying to get young people to matriculate with them.

  20. Eddie Edwards

    No circular argument

    The anthropic principle may be unsatisfying in many ways, but it is naive to say it is a circular argument. A circular argument is one which proves its premise by using its premise as an axiom. The anthropic principle doesn't suffer from this. It is answering a question of the form "why does B occur" with the answer "we know A occurs, and !B => !A, therefore B", which is absolutely mathematically sound. (B being the fact that the universe is "tuned for life" and A being the fact the universe contains life.)

    The problem with the anthropic principle is that it tells us nothing we didn't already know and it adds no insight into the deeper question of why both A & B occur in the first place. There's also this uneasy feeling that it's essentially a bitch-slap response from physicists who don't think it's an appropriate question to ask.

    1. Chris Miller

      Most serious theoretical physicists (including Neil Turok) to whom I've had the opportunity to put the question dislike invoking the anthropic principle, regarding it as a bit of a cop-out. To misquote Rutherford: "If your theory relies on the anthropic principle, you should have thought of a better theory".

  21. Paul 98

    Looks like the content taught in these Alpha courses I see being taught around the country is going to have to change to fit these new scientific findings.

  22. Paul Smith

    Universal constants

    I always considered universal constants to be over rated. The only reason we need 83% of the known universe to be made up of matter that we can not prove the existence of, is because without it, some of our 'constants' wouldn't be constant. Well guess what fellow physicists, beware of interesting times ahead!

    Newtonian physics gave us a concept of gravitation that related attraction to mass over the square of distance, and we knew of no reason to doubt why that should not be univeral, so it was called the - all together now - Universal Constant of Gravitation. Einstein however, missed a golden opertunity. He came up with something that showed that the measurement of mass and of distance was not absolute but relative to velocity, so instantly, Big G should have become suspect.

    When I fell in love with physics, it was its simplicity and honesty that attracted me. If the evidence proved a theory wrong, you dropped the theory and tried to come up with a better one. Dark matter and super string theories are not, in my humble and outdated opinion, better theories, they are attempts to bodge disproven theories and should have been strangled at birth.

  23. Graham Bartlett

    Which anthropic principle?

    There's two.

    The Strong Anthropic Principle says "the universe has the behaviour it does in order that we can be here to talk about it". Basically creationism.

    The Weak Anthropic Principle is the one quoted here, which says "if the universe didn't have the behaviour it does, we wouldn't be here to talk about it". Sure, this may seem like handwaveyness. But if the boffins are correct that there's actually an infinity of universes out there with different settings, being able to put limits on the range of settings that give rise to a "working" universe is a valid exercise. It's not just an "it is because it is" bitchslap. Instead it's a thought experiment where you say "what if it wasn't" and find the result is a dead universe, so you can put much tighter limits on what values are valid.

    Think TVs for an example. It's a safe bet that everyone's brightness and contrast settings are within a few percent of midway. You could ask "why do people use those values?" and be told "bcos it works", which might not seem very helpful. But if you rephrase the question as "why don't people use other values?" and find the answer is "bcos you can't see the picture", then you can put much tighter limits on what's a working range of values.

    1. Chris Miller

      Those aren't the generally accepted forms of weak/strong AP. Weak AP is saying that, within the space/time universe as we observe it, we must expect to find ourselves in that part of it which permits the existence of intelligent life forms. This can be used to explain why we find ourselves in orbit around a G1 dwarf rather than a black hole or a pulsar.

      Strong AP is the claim that 'universal' constants must be such as to allow for the existence of intelligent observers. If you allow for a multiverse, then it's simply an extended form of the weak principle (universes with all possible values of fundamental constants exist, and we naturally find ourselves in one which is congenial for complex lifeforms). If there's only the single observable universe, then you must account for why the universal constants appear to be fine-tuned to allow complex (intelligent) observers to exist.

  24. g e

    " increases a little in one direction and falls in the other"

    Sounds a little like a static warp bubble.

    I demand someone use this alpha effect to make warp speed now!

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Coming soon from a weapons behemoth near you...

    .. a demoleculariser ray gun!! Changes the level of alpha in your vicinity and your components molecules break down into simpler elements!!

  26. Robert E A Harvey

    Old Programmer's Lore

    Constants aren't

    Variables don't

  27. Nigel 11

    Observable universe < universe.

    The universe may be very much bigger than the observable universe. The latter is the part of spacetime from which light is today reaching us. It's pretty much a 3D section of a 4D spacetime (since we have observations over a few milennia only, and good ones only over a decade or two). The rest might be (a) forever unobservable, (b) inferrable from its effects on the observable at an earlier time, or (c) capable of becoming observable in the deep future if anything can brake the observed (and probably accelerating) expansion of the observable bit of the universe.

    I've long had a pet idea that the topology of the entire universe is torroidal . That's based on the non-observation of magnetic monopoles and the everyday observation of magnetic fields. The simplest topology within which those facts do not essentially contradict each other is the torroidal. Such a topology might also eliminate the need for the birth of the entire cosmos from a big-bang singularity. What's physics like in the "hole" in the donut, if the observable universe is on the "outside equator"? Different, for certain. BTW that's a 4-torus, or possibly one of higher dimensionality if string or brane theories are correct. It would imply time and space are both eternal but cyclical.

    A torroidal universe would have to be anisotropic (different in different directions) but the observable bit of it might look very close to isotropic. Very close, but maybe not so close that we can't find a slight hint of a built-in directionality?

    1. Nigel 11

      Old Science-simulation programmer's lore

      If your system has an easily-computed invariant (such as total energy) then compute it after each iteration and compare it with the previous value. You expect small changes because of floating-point rounding errors. An unexpectedly large change meant one of two things:

      You'd introduced a bug into the program, or

      The floating-point hardware was flaking out.

      In the days of the CDC 7600 and Cray-1, it was commonplace for a scientist to phone the computer centre and tell them the latter. They'd assert the former. It was most gratifying to say "told you so" on the occasions that the system went down for hardware maintenance a few hours or days later.


      1. the need to check your invariants hasn't gone away. It's just that with modern technology you usually own the whole CPU, and it isn't mend-able any more.

      2. Who says that the observable universe isn't just a sim in $deity's computer? And that it doesn't have any bugs?

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Circular argument

    Talking of religion and circular arguments, religion is the classic circular argument.

    God exists because it says so in the bible (which is the only 'proof' one has of anything relating to religion).

    And of course the bible must be true because 'it is the word of God'.

    There really is no arguing with religious types. It's pointless. Their logical arguments for the existence of god apply just as well to it being a large green frog or some dude with the head of an elephant or jackal or whatever. But of course, *their* holy book is the truth, and everyone else's is full of nonsense.

    1. Chris Miller


      Many sophisticated thinkers have attempted to demonstrate the existence of a deity* from first principles. St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) demonstrated his "ontological argument", serious discussion of which continues to this day. Descartes found it necessary to assume the existence of a benevolent deity in order to move beyond solipsism.

      Of course, philosophers exist within their cultural milieu just like the rest of us. An apparent logical proof for the existence of god was widely welcomed prior to the enlightenment, whereas a similar argument today is usually taken to demonstrate an error in the chain of logic. But nonetheless ...

      * this is not necessarily equivalent to Jehovah/Allah/Brahma/Zeus/Wotan/whatever

  29. JeffyPooh Silver badge

    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Fine-structure constant

    It's all explained here:

  30. John 62

    use strict; use constant alpha;

    Maybe $deity_of_choice forgot to use strict and/or to declare α with use constant. Though at least the newer versions of Perl support lots of unicode and you can use 'α' in your code as a variable name.

    1. Graham Dawson

      So the universe is written in perl? That... sort of makes a lot of sense.


      1. Hungry Sean


        well, if you believe the universe took only 7 days to be created, Perl's just about the only possible explanation.

        1. Graham Dawson

          It's the subsequent bug-fixing that took millions of years. Certainly felt like it.

  31. Mike Bell

    What's it all about?

    If you want to make a physicist twitch, ask him *why* 1 over alpha has the value 137.035999...

    It's a dimensionless number cooked up by God, The Universe, or whatever you call it.

    And whereas numbers like e and PI are readily calculable, no mathematician has ever found a way of creating alpha by deduction.

    If I were God, I'd perhaps consider making a multitude of universes with a multitude of alphas along an alpha dimension. Or something like that. Then it wouldn't hurt my head if someone happened to find one somewhere that had the value that we see and started moaning that he couldn't work it out.

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  33. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    "he said the observations might need years to gain acceptance"

    It's good that alpha is not 1/137.00000000000000012121... measured to 10 decimal places otherwise everyone would be offended that someone would doubt the elegance of "EXACTLY 1/137"

  34. RW


    Generally speaking the word "chemical" is reserved for compounds, usually molecular in nature.

    It's *elements* that are synthesized in stars, but only up to atomic number 56, iron. Heavier elements are synthesized only in supernovas.

    Indeed, "chemical" is a weasel word in this case. "Atoms" would be more suitable and more precise.

    Get your nomenclature right, Mr. Chirgwin.

    1. Richard Chirgwin (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: "Chemicals"


      Two out of the three occurrences of the word "chemicals" appear as direct quotes. It's quite feasible that conversationally, Dr Webb is less strict than might be regarded as perfection. In any case, I'm not about to start revising direct quotes from an interviewee.

    2. Tom 13

      If you are going to be a pedant about it,

      "elements" isn't the right word either as what exists in stars and even more so in supernovas is a plasma, and what are actually being synthesized are nuclei which when the plasma cools will become elements.

    3. Richard Pennington 1

      Atomic number / Atomic weight / (etc.)

      The atomic number (the number of protons in the nucleus) of iron is 26. The element with atomic number 56 is barium.

      The atomic weight of iron is about 56 (naturally occurring iron is a mixture of stable isotopes, and the atomic weight is an average [weighted, so to speak] by abundance) of the atomic weights of those isotopes found in any particular sample - although there is not a lot of variation between samples). The weight of any particular isotope is *approximately* the number of nucleons (protons + neutrons, so iron-56 has 26 protons and 30 neutrons making 56 nucleons in all) in the nucleus. The approximation there is because both the proton and the neutron weigh slightly more than 1 unit, and we have to subtract out the binding energy of the nucleus. The atomic or isotopic weight also includes the weight of enough electrons (outside the nucleus) to make the atom electrically neutral, and subtracts out the binding energy of those electrons. The net result is that the isotopic weight of iron-56 is slightly less than 56 units.

      The atomic mass unit is standardised such that the isotopic weight of carbon-12 is exactly 12 units.

  35. PeterKinnon


    Webb's findings are very interesting in their own right. Inconclusive, maybe, but that is the nature of science. Rather than settling on a dogma it constantly seeks new evidence.

    Inasmuch as it impacts on "anthropic principles" and the like, however, it does not really have much to say one way or another.

    The strongest evidence for the "fine tuning" of the universe, or at least the locality, within which we find ourselves actually lies well downstream of cosmology and the physical constants.

    It is to be found in abundance n the strong directional patterns (and the inevitability thereof ) which are observed in chemistry and biology.

    Moreover, there is no need to invoke any kind of "creator" or "designer", or, for that matter, extravagant multiverse notions, in order to account for this pattern.

    A far more economical approach is the wide evolutionary model (which extends well beyond biology ) outlined very informally in my latest book : "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" (free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website)

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