Sep 112010
 
W.M. Keck Telescopes at sunset

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Star Trek’s Scotty was adamant that you “canna change the laws of physics,” but, according to a report from a team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England, that could be exactly what happens in different parts of the universe. The report describes how one of the supposed fundamental constants of Nature appears not to be constant after all. Instead, this ‘magic number’ known as the fine-structure constant – ‘alpha’ for short – appears to vary throughout the universe.

“After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe,” Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.

“The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely ‘local by-laws’, it might be that whilst our observable part of the universe favours the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it,” Webb added. “If our results are correct, clearly we shall need new physical theories to satisfactorily describe them.”

The researchers’ conclusions are based on new measurements taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, along with their previous measurements from the world’s largest optical telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

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