Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
Are the "Laws" of Physics Unchangeable?
Physics is complex. I know, that may be a shocking revelation. We have vectors, tensors, hidden components, and so much more that make it seemingly impenetrable. But what if physics changed depending on where you were in the universe? Now that would be shocking. Is there any way to see if it’s possible? Well…
Astronomers have found that electromagnetism acts as expected based on light emanating from quasar HE 0515-4414, located 8.5 billion light-years away. By comparing the strength of the measured EM fields (which were amongst the strongest ever seen from a quasar) from spectrographs collected by the European Southern Observatory, the Very Large Telescope, and the 3.6 meter in Chile to what theory predicts it should be after passing through the galaxies between us and the quasar offered scientists a great test, and EM passed. The wavelengths that should have been absorbed and reemitted by dust and other objects occurred just as predicted. At such a distance from us and so far removed, it is reassuring evidence that at least light acts the way we expect it to (Hrala, Pandey).
Another study by Vrije Universiteit with a team from the University of Amsterdam and the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne looked at the mass ratio of protons to electrons going to 12.4 billion years in the past and found it varied “less than 0.0005 percent,” which is hardly significant. The principle behind the finding is similar to the quasar study, with light’s fingerprints in radio spectrums providing the necessary clues as it interacted with gases from the past. If the ratio was different, the protons might be too small to pull electrons in, or electrons would be too heavy to sustain in an orbit (Srinivasan).
And in yet another project headed by Michael Murphey and the Swineburne University, quasar B0218+367, located 7.5 billion light-years, was used. Like the prior study, gas (in this case ammonia) was between the quasar and us and so the spectrum was partially absorbed exactly as the proton-electron mass ratio predicted it should (Atkinson).
In a different study by Murphey, over 300 galaxies were used to show that electromagnetism may be different in various parts of the Universe. In this case, the fine-structure constant (which helps determine how strong the EM force is when it comes to interacting with matter) was measured across numerous galaxies using data from the Keck and VLT. The findings of Julian King and his team showed that not only did the constant vary but it did so “along a preferred axis through the universe” with galaxies towards the north having a smaller constant when compared to those in the south. In fact, it seems to line up with a collection of galaxies near the edge of the universe, but it is unclear if the two are correlated. What was clear was that the result of the team was found to be 99.996% likely, which isn’t enough to call a result but is strong evidence that something is going on here (Swineburne, Brooks, Murphy).
Obviously, the consequences of physical laws varying throughout the universe would be devastating. It could imply that we are the only life in the universe because our region has physical laws that allow for life but other places in the universe may not. It could be evidence for string theory or any of the numerous M-theories, for all allow for varying constants of the universe (Swineburne, Murphy).
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Maybe instead it’s an opportunity to think about why constants exist. Theory remains inadequate to independently give us their values and are instead found through repeated (and repeated and repeated and repeated) experimentation until their value seems to fall into a bin. But sometimes these constants don’t always hold up to measurement, like the decay rate of neutrons (which seems to change depending on the way it’s measured). Is there an overlaying and universal theory that predicts these constants, and if so why has it escaped us? Are the constants tied to how space-time has changed (via inflation, dark matter, and dark energy), or is it a dimensional quality (Srinivasan)?
Only time and hard work will reveal what’s going on, and so the search continues.
Atkinson, Nancy. “Are the Laws of Nature the Same Everywhere in the Universe?” universetoday.com. 20 Jun. 2008. Web. 05 Dec. 2018.
Brooks, Michael. “Laws of physics may change across the universe.” Newscientist.com. New Scientist Ltd., 08 Sept. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2018.
Hrala, Josh. “Astronomers have confirmed that a force of nature in a distant galaxy is the same as on Earth.” Sciencelalert.com. Science Alert, 17 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2018.
Murphy, Michael. “Are Nature’s Laws Really Universal?” astronomy.swin.edu. Swineburne University of Technology. Web. 04 Dec. 2018.
Pandey, Avaneesh. “Are The Laws of Physics Universal? Study confirms Strength of electromagnetism In Distant Galaxy Same as That on Earth.” Ibtimes.com. IBT Times, 16 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 Dec. 2018.
Srinivasan, Venkat. “Are the Constants of Physics Constant?” blog.scientificamerican.com. Scientific American, 07 Mar. 2016. Web. 04 Dec. 2018.
Swinburne University of Technology. “Laws of Physics vary throughout the universe, new study suggests.” Sciencedaily.com. Science Daily, 09 Sept. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2018.
© 2019 Leonard Kelley