Laws of physics 'vary throughout the universe'

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Australian and British astrophysicists say they have found evidence that the laws of physics are different in different parts of the universe.

They've found that one of the supposed fundamental constants of nature - the fine-structure constant, or '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," said professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales.

“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."

The conclusions are based on new measurements taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, along with previous measurements from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

"The Keck telescopes and the VLT are in different hemispheres – they look in different directions through the universe. Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha," says Julian King from the University of New South Wales.

"It varies by only a tiny amount – about one part in 100,000 – over most of the observable universe, but it's possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon." 

The discovery will mean a massive rethink for physicists.

"The fine structure constant, and other fundamental constants, are absolutely central to our current theory of physics. If they really do vary, we'll need a better, deeper theory," said Dr Michael Murphy from Swinburne University.

"While a 'varying constant' would shake our understanding of the world around us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we're finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”