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There are some things we take for granted. One of these is that the laws of nature must be constant everywhere.
A distant quasar
Now, a new study is revealing that that may not be the case. Researchers from UNSW Sydney studied four new measurements of light emitted from a quasar13 billion light-years away and found tiny variations in the fine structure constant, a measure of electromagnetism.
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This finding is in tune with what other past studies have discovered.
"The fine structure constant is the quantity that physicists use as a measure of the strength of the electromagnetic force,” said UNSW Science’s Professor John Webb.
“It's a dimensionless number and it involves the speed of light, something called Planck's constant and the electron charge, and it's a ratio of those things. And it's the number that physicists use to measure the strength of the electromagnetic force.
Electromagnetic force is crucial as it keeps electrons flying around a nucleus in atoms everywhere. If it did not exist, all matter would literally disintegrate.
For many years it was believed to be a constant unchanging force throughout time and space. However, over the last 20 years, Professor Webb has found various anomalies in the fine structure constant.
“We found a hint that that number of the fine structure constant was different in certain regions of the universe. Not just as a function of time, but actually also in direction in the universe, which is really quite odd if it's correct ... but that's what we found," explained Webb.
Webb had to first eliminate every possibility that the observations were from faulty equipment or miscalculations. Once that was done, the logical conclusion was that electromagnetic force was simply not constant throughout the universe.
"Putting all the data together, electromagnetism seems to gradually increase the further we look, while towards the opposite direction, it gradually decreases," said Webb.
"In other directions in the cosmos, the fine structure constant remains just that – constant. These new very distant measurements have pushed our observations further than has ever been reached before."
What does this mean for physics in general? Well, further studies need to be conducted but it could mean that the Grand Unified Theory may have to be set aside.
"Our standard model of cosmology is based on an isotropic universe, one that is the same, statistically, in all directions," explained Webb. "That standard model itself is built upon Einstein's theory of gravity, which itself explicitly assumes constancy of the laws of nature."
"If such fundamental principles turn out to be only good approximations, the doors are open to some very exciting, new ideas in physics."
The paper is published in the journal Science Advances.