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What they found shocked them. The further back they looked with the VLT, the larger alpha seemed to be—in seeming contradiction to the result they had obtained with the Keck. They realised, however, that there was a crucial difference between the two telescopes: because they are in different hemispheres, they are pointing in opposite directions. Alpha, therefore, is not changing with time; it is varying through space. When they analysed the data from both telescopes in this way, they found a great arc across the sky. Along this arc, the value of alpha changes smoothly, being smaller in one direction and larger in the other.
RICHARD FEYNMAN, Nobel laureate and physicist extraordinaire, called it a “magic number” and its value “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics”. The number he was referring to, which goes by the symbol alpha and the rather more long-winded name of the fine-structure constant, is magic indeed. If it were a mere 4% bigger or smaller than it is, stars would not be able to sustain the nuclear reactions that synthesise carbon and oxygen. One consequence would be that squishy, carbon-based life would not exist.
a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia present evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all. Rather, it seems to vary from place to place within the universe. If their results hold up to the scrutiny, and can be replicated, they will have profound implications—for they suggest that the universe stretches far beyond what telescopes can observe, and that the laws of physics vary within it.
the fine-structure constant is actually a compound of several other physical constants, whose values can be found in any physics textbook. You start with the square of an electron’s charge, divide it by the speed of light and Planck’s constant, then multiply the whole lot by two pi. The point of this convoluted procedure is that this combination of multiplication and division produces a pure, dimensionless number. The units in which the original measurements were made cancel each other out and the result is 1/137.036, regardless of the measuring system you used in the first place.
If the fine-structure constant really does vary through space, it may provide a way of studying the elusive “higher dimensions” that many theories of reality predict, but which are beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth. In these theories, the constants observed in the three-dimensional world are reflections of what happens in higher dimensions. It is natural in these theories for such constants to change their values as the universe expands and evolves.
Unfortunately, their method does not allow the team to tell which of the constants that goes into alpha might be changing. But it suggests that at least one of them is. On the other hand, the small value of the change over a distance of 18 billion light-years suggests the whole universe is vastly bigger than had previously been suspected. A diameter of 18 billion light-years (9 billion in each direction) is a considerable percentage of observable reality. The universe being 13.7 billion years old, 13.7 billion light-years—duly stretched to allow for the expansion of the universe—is the maximum distance it is possible to see in any direction. If the variation Dr Webb and Mr King have found is real, and as gradual as their data suggest, you would have to go a very long way indeed to come to a bit of space where the fine-structure constant was more than 4% different from its value on Earth.