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Are the Laws of Physics the same everywhere and everywhen?

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Thinking the unThinkable

Some things are so obvious that you never question them.

When I was in college I took a course on the Philosophy of Mathematics.  On the first day of class I found myself sitting next to a woman who was working on a master’s degree in Mathematics.  We began to discuss physics and mathematics.  She asked me, “What makes you think that the world lends itself to mathematical formulation?”  Huh?  (Side note: It is an interesting question to philosophy as to why the world is mathematical as opposed to operational according to some other mechanism.  To the Greeks, the fates controlled the world and even the gods were subject to the fates – their own (gods) destiny was unknown to them.  In the 1950’s Process Theology picked up on this holding that Gods future was open and unknown to him/her, was not able to control any series of events, nor is God omnipotent.  So, how does the world work?)

Well, I thought, how could anyone ask such as question?  Simply, and empirically, “it works”.  That is, mathematical models can describe and predict the physics of the world – as we know it, so far.

What happens when you start questioning some of these basic assumptions of scientific disciplines?  If mathematical models can not describe the physical world, then what?

Another assumption of Physics is that the laws of Physics are the same everywhere and everywhen.  What if they are not?  Then what?  And what if fundamental constants are not fundamental constants everywhere?  Then what?  What new thing have we discovered about the world?

A couple of physicists from New South Wales stumbled upon some data that suggests that the laws of physics might not be the same everywhere in the Universe.  And further, that we just might be in the Goldilocks zone in the Universe where the laws of physics (here) make life possible.  (Side question: As the solar system moves through space with the Milky Way galaxy will we reach a point in space where the laws of physics don’t make carbon-based life possible?)

Check out the article in The Economist.

Excerpt below; link to the full text below.

In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia presents 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 scrutiny 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. Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life, then, humanity finds itself in a corner of space where, Goldilocks-like, the values of the fundamental constants happen to be just right for it.

…If. Other teams of astronomers are already on the case, and Victor Flambaum, one of Dr Webb’s colleagues at the University of New South Wales, points out in a companion paper that laboratory tests involving atomic clocks only slightly better than those that exist already could provide an independent check. These would vary as the solar system moves through the universe. But if and when such confirmation comes, it will break one of physics’s greatest taboos, the assumption that physical laws are the same everywhere and everywhen. And the fine-structure constant will have shown itself to be more mysterious than even Feynman conceived.

Read the full story in The Economist here:

In your spare time – Principia Mathematica
Required reading – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


Written by frrl

September 13, 2010 at 1:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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