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Home » Dave’s DiegesesJune 2005 » Dave’s Diegesis: Constant Craving

Dave’s Diegesis: Constant Craving

They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.

What if constants were not so constant? Of course, supposedly constant things, like faith, hope, love, and the need for a 6'5" late innings defensive first baseman named “David” not “John” wax and wane over the course of time, in spite of what Shakespeare would have us believe. But, hey, who’s bitter? Those supposed constants are based on human nature, infinitely variable and volatile. True, universal constants, like the velocity of light, the gravitational constant, and the mass of an electron, have not been questioned, as they are the warp and weft that comprise the material of the universe as know it.

Or rather, as we think we know it. Recent findings indicate that the underpinnings of our physical universe may not be as constant as we imagine them to be. M-theory posits that universal consistency is only possible if there are more than four dimensions. With this understanding, the constants we observe might be apparitions of a higher dimensional space where the actual fundamental constants preside.

Since the 1930s, there has been speculation that constants might be fickle. Cosmologists recently have been able to compile data that shows one of these cherished numbers, the fine-structure constant first introduced in 1916, may have varied throughout time.

The formula for the fine-structure constant is:


Where “c” is the velocity of light, “e” is the elementary charge, “h” is Planck’s constant, and “ε0” is the permittivity of free space. The value of α is rounded to 1/137, and I would have made this my number if the major leagues allowed it.

Bizarre things would manifest if α were different:

“[A]ll sorts of vital features of the world around us would change. If the value were lower, the density of solid atomic matter would fall (in proportion to α3), molecular bonds would break at lower temperatures (α2), and the number of stable elements in the periodic table could increase (1/α). If were too big, small atomic nuclei could not exist, because the electrical repulsion of their protons would overwhelm the strong nuclear force binding them together. A value as big as 0.1 would blow apart carbon....

“If α exceeded 0.1, fusion would be impossible (unless other parameters, such as the electron-to-proton mass ratio, were adjusted to compensate). A shift of just 4 percent in would alter the energy levels in the nucleus of carbon to such an extent that the production of this element by stars would shut down.”

AlpharedshiftThe discovery of quasars in the 1960s enabled astronomical observations to measure α more precisely. Light emitted by a quasar travels immense distances, and along their path passes through gas that absorbs the light at frequencies. This absorption is dependent upon the electromagnetic force between the nucleus and the electrons, which also derives the value of the fine-structure constant. Using spectroscopy, Patrick Petitjean, Bastien Aracil, Raghunathan Srianand, and Hum Chand studied 18 different quasars over the course of 34 nights and determined that over the past 10 billion years, α was less than 0.6 parts per million, which they claim proves that the fine-structure constant did not vary.

However (every great mystery of the universe article always has a “however”), a competing duo, mathematician John D. Barrow and astrophysicist John K. Webb, has compiled data that showed that α increased at 6 parts per million over the past six to 12 billion years. Barrow modified Jacob D. Beckenstein’s generalizations to the laws of electromagnetism to accommodate inconstant constants by adding gravity to the mix. This modification made the fine-structure constant more than a constant, but a scalar field, a number which impacts every point in space. Although the increase that Barrow and Webb seems small, when recast as a scalar field, a theory of the historical variations of α emerges. On a cosmic scale, gravity is much stronger than electromagnetism. So, the expansion of the universe and its accompanying impact on gravity affects α, driven by the disparity between electric and magnetic field energy.

“During the first tens of thousands of years of cosmic history, radiation dominated over charged particles and kept the electric and magnetic fields in balance. As the universe expanded, radiation thinned out, and matter became the dominant constituent of the cosmos. The electric and magnetic energies became unequal, and α started to increase very slowly, growing as the logarithm of time. About six billion years ago dark energy took over and accelerated the expansion, making it difficult for all physical influences to propagate through space. So α became nearly constant again.”

So, sigh no more ladies, sigh no more. Formulae were deceivers ever, with one foot in sea and one on shore; to one thing constant never.

Every Friday, Dave McCarty will join us to discuss a topic of interest to him and probably no one else but the author of this site and other lone science geeks with a literary bent.


I was saying something similar just the other day. In this diegesis, Dave wrote the following:

"...the... ."

I use this word all the time!

FPS, that was one of the funniest comments of all time.

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