Lisbon, 6 September 2010: New research suggests that the supposedly invariant fine-structure constant, which characterises the strength of the electromagnetic force, varies from place to place throughout the Universe. The finding could mean rethinking the fundaments of our current knowledge of physics. These results will be presented tomorrow during the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, and the scientific article has been submitted to the Physical Review Letters Journal.
A team of astronomers led by John Webb from the University of New South Wales, Australia, have obtained new data by studying quasars, which are very distant galaxies hosting an active black hole in their centre. As the light emitted by quasars travels throughout the cosmos, part of it is absorbed by a variety of atoms present in interstellar clouds, providing astronomers with a natural laboratory to test the laws of physics billions of light-years away from the Earth.
Webb’s results imply that the fine-structure constant, which characterises the strength of the electromagnetic force, might have different values depending on which direction we are looking in the sky, thus being not so ‘constant’ after all.
“The precision of astrophysical measurements of the fine-structure constant, or alpha, dramatically increased about a decade ago when Victor Flambaum and I introduced the ´Many-Multiplet Method´, and since then evidence started mounting, suggesting this crucial physical quantity might not be the same everywhere in the Universe” says Webb.
The results obtained by Webb’s team suggest that if there is any time-variation, it may be much less than the variation with position in the Universe. If correct, the new data indicates that new physics will be required to explain something so fundamental. The implications of these results are so resounding that they are likely to cause controversy in the scientific community.