The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Outer Space ... Science ...

A lot of people, both inside and outside the scientific community, got riled up back in September by the results of a recent study on neutrino particles purporting to show them moving just a bit faster than light speed. Of course, that would violate a key tenant of Einstein’s relativity physics, i.e. the ban against anything with mass achieving light speed, and against anything with or without mass going faster (and able to covey any sort of real information — as neutrinos could). A lot of intelligent non-science folk got interested, hoping that something with deep mystical or philosophical implications was in the works here.

However, from what I’ve seen from a variety of sources, the science folk have the situation under control. There’s plenty of past evidence showing that neutrinos can’t and don’t violate light speed, and also plenty of reasons why the study in question was deceiving. It will take some months to straighten it out, but the boffins seem confident that the whole thing will blow over soon. Sorry, nothing to see here, metaphysically speaking.

But something else is going on in the world of sub-atomic particles and forces that could be just as troubling, even though it hasn’t gained much attention from the public. The reason for that is because it involves the “fine structure constant” of atoms. I don’t understand exactly what this constant is, but I gather that it is important because it predicts how particles within atoms will interact with each other and with particles from without that cause light and magnetism (photons). It basically spells out what atoms will do in various situations according to quantum physics (quantum electrodynamics).

Why should anyone but the most pedantic physicist care about that? Because, if atoms acted differently, if the fine structure constant of their components changed too much, then the world as we know it, with solid stuff, could not exist. You couldn’t have suns and planets and houses and rivers and . . . whatnot. Reality would be more of an energy fuzzball or fog. Even if this constant changed by just a few percentage points, stars could no longer manufacture the key elements needed for life, e.g. carbon and oxygen. Thus living, sentient beings as we know them might not be able to exist or be sustained in such a universe.

As Dr. Ethan Siegel explains in his popular physics blog “Starts With A Bang”, there have been some good studies in recent years showing that the fine structure constant has changed over billions of years. Another study hints that fine structure may be different in different parts of the universe, independent of time. Although the public hasn’t been too concerned about all this, it freaks a lot of physicists out. As with the neutrino situation, researchers and theorists are working hard to unravel this one. Unlike the neutrino study, however, this situation is supported by several studies, that no one has yet been able to pick apart.

(Interestingly, one of the factors that goes into calculating the fine structure constant is the speed of light; if light speed as we know it were found not to hold for neutrinos, then the fine structure situation might be even worse.)

If any of the fine structure variations were to hold up, it could mean a number of things. DEFINITELY NOT that life on earth as we know it is doomed. Nor that God or some other metaphysical force rules (although, as with all of this astrophysical jive, it does NOT rule out that possibility, Stephen Hawking notwithstanding). But perhaps it will show that reality has more dimensions to it than are now obvious, more places for interaction factors to hide than we are currently aware of. Perhaps light speed, for one, is different in other places and times. Perhaps the system of particles and forces as we know them can vary.

But not here in our little world. We are talking about billions of light years and eons of time. Still, it might be good to keep an eye on the fine structure constant situation in modern physics. That could be where some big changes for today’s physics textbooks could originate.

Oh P.S., while we’re talking about space stuff — here’s another interesting “almost” situation (thankfully, one that did NOT happen). Back in 1883, an astronomer in Mexico might have seen the remains of a comet that got pretty close to hitting the earth. If for just a few hundred miles course variance, human life actually might have been snuffed out, if that astronomers reports were correct. Article here. However, there are skeptics.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:46 pm      

  1. Jim, I may be wrong here–and I make these comments with great respect for your ideas and furthermore, I admit that I have never even HEARD of the find structure constant, so it’s entirely possible I may be completely wrong–but the first thing that struck me in your blog was the apparent sense of worry about impending doom if the “fine structure constant” should be proved, what? wrong? Inaccurate? Not working the way scientists tho’t it worked? I note specifically these words you used: “science folk have the situation UNDER CONTROL” (I found myself asking, what if they don’t have it under control?), “the world as we know it…could not exist” (really?), and “the fine structure situation might be even worse”. Perhaps I’m misreading what you meant. I mean no sarcasm here or no laughing at your words. I just found myself asking the above questions and thinking the above tho’ts.

    It seems to me that if there is something wrong in how scientists are thinking of the “fine stucture constant”, then it’s about time we find out about it. If they have been wrong, somehow or other the world as we know it has existed so far and likely will continue to exist–only maybe we will find it’s more how we THINK about the world than how it IS.

    Maybe it’s because I know so very, very little about anything physics, but I am intrigued by the fact that scientists may be finding that they were wrong about some things–and that Einstein himself wasn’t the end of all the possible knowledge that can be known in physics. I hesitate to say this, but was it not Einstein who set some of Newton’s ideas on their ear? (So to speak) And the world was better off for understanding Einstein’s tho’t and “fixing” Newton’s, wasn’t it?

    I just HAVE to say that if there IS soemthing the scientists have wrong about the fine structure constant, “living, sentient beings as we know them” will most likely continue to exist.

    What strikes me often about physics is that it is made up of THEORIES. I used to think in terms of physics as having the final answer to a lot of things. Then I realized: Hey, these ideas put forth by physicists are THEORIES, i.e., OK, there is evidence (more or less) for thus and so, but in the end, nothing is nailed down, to put it in plain English.

    Most likely, it’s because I know so little about physics that I find it refreshing to think that some day scientists will find that indeed something will be able to go faster than the speed of light–or there will be a way “around” the barrier of the speed of light–something like that.

    I totally agree with you and find myself saying, YES! to your comment: “perhaps it will show that reality has more dimensions to it than are now obvious.” In my heart of hearts (I realize I’ve go the wrong body organ to discuss physics in this sentence) I’ve tho’t there are probably n dimensions, since the 1960s when altered states of consciousness became a “thing” to investigate. OK, some of those investigating the idea went too far and totally went overboard. But it seems obvious to me that altered states of consciousness tell us that there is much more to reality than we are aware of in the one we are “used” to and the one physicists say they know all about.

    I’ve often tho’t that when “they” speak of “billions of light years” for light to travel to earth, even when “they” talk about the earth 100 million years ago scientists surely are NOT talking about time in the same terms we think of it when we look at a clock or think of how many years we have lived. Surely when such seriously large amounts of time are discussed we are in the realm of another dimension. I’m probably going to be laughed off the planet for that statement, but somehow it just seems obvious to me.

    So I guess, I’m not worried about the fine structure constant–and you aren’t either, I’m sure. I’ve misread you; I’m sure I have. I am also extremely aware of the fact that I am totally lacking in any learning and/or knowledge when it comes to physics. “A little learning is a dangerous thing”; and if I speak about this topic, I’m in dangerous territory as my learning is so very little.

    It’s likely the rebel in me (for which I’ve been soundly criticized in my lifetime, but I keep doing it), but something makes me LIKE the idea that Einstein may be proved wrong in this or that idea he had. Something makes me LIKE the idea that the speed of light may be easier to get past (or is it break? what’s the correct terminology here–see I don’t even know that) than one would think. I also like the idea of the dimensions we are so sure of on this planet being perhaps a “constant” only in our own minds and not in reality.

    Maybe that’s where reality actually exists–in our own mind; and what we may REALLY not be aware of is how different each of us perceives the world and would describe it in physics terms, if we could. I like the idea of the “constant” of reality being in our own minds. But, then again, what do I know? Not much, I admit. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 17, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

  2. You will love this:

    Is what physics has been needing, a phenomenally strong magnetic field from ordinary stuff. Forget dark matter/mass, throw away the idea that neutron stars need gravity to collapse and black holes?? they are magnetic traps where light is changed to neutrinos. Bless you science. Finally.

    [E. Student Comment: Thanks, pretty cool. Will need to take a better look. Photons to neutrinos? A boson to a fermion? Need to ponder that one.]

    Comment by katesisco — November 30, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

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