Natural Laws

My buddy Geoff Nesbitt (not his real name) sent me a link recently alerting me to a disturbing cosmological finding reported by Professor John Webb of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The disturbing finding was that the fine structure constant-known as alpha- may be not the same everywhere throughout our universe.

According to Webb: “We found a hint that the value 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… This may mean that there are actual regions of the universe in which the inhabitants don’t need twelve or more different remotes to operate their various entertainment devices. “

Webb also reported another disturbing finding, noting that some of his socks were going missing after doing loads of laundry in his new high-speed washing machine.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Alpha-the fine structure constant. Alpha is denoted by the Greek letter α, oddly enough, and it describes the strength of the interactions between charged particles like electrons, protons, pelotons, antipelotons, democraticons and republicons. Alpha was discovered by studying the emission spectrum of hot atomic hydrogen gas. These hot gases, referred to by some lay people as “hot air”, are also a very common characteristic shared by both stellar objects and politicians. “Spin” is another shared property.

Here is one of the more common definitions of alpha, where e is the decimal fraction of honest politicians in the universe relative to the total number of politicians in the universe and ħc is short for “Hanging Chad” or maybe “Hilary Clinton” depending on what region of the political universe you are currently located in:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mathematical-definition-of-alpha.jpg

Don’t get me wrong. I think The Fine Structure Constant is a fine (!) name for a mathematical constant. And maybe even an OK name for a string quartet ensemble. I just feel like maybe we shouldn’t go calling something a constant when it doesn’t remain constant. And that’s exactly what Professor John Webb at the University of New South Wales is saying.

astrpjysicist string quartet ensemble
University of New South Wales astrophysicist ensemble practicing their newest composition: String Quartet No. 137 in Ursa Minor

Professor Webb was recently interviewed by Kepler Hubble Jr. III, a reporter for the Sydney Daily Parabolic Reflector, located in Dubbo, New South Wales for some strange reason.

welcome to Dubbo

Kepler Hubble III: “So Professor Webb, what exactly are you saying about the variable nature of the fine structure constant?”

Professor Webb: “I’m saying that this is something that is taken very seriously and is regarded, quite correctly with scepticism, even by me, even though I did the first work on it with my students. But it’s something you’ve got to test because it’s possible we do live in a weird universe.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “How weird?”

Professor Webb: “Very weird. Imagine the State of Florida but with a diameter of 93 billion light-years.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Wow! How many metres is that?”

Professor Webb: “About 8.8×1026 metres or 880 yottametres.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “That’s a lotta metres!”

Professor Webb: “No, I said ‘yottametres’ not ‘a lotta metres’. Honest mistake on your part. Think nothing of it. But y’oughta try writing out all the zeros in that number some time.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Right, then. Two more rapid-fire questions coming your way here. How on Earth did you figure out that there might be a problem with the fine structure constant? And also, should I get a tattoo like the person in this photo?”

man with Finse structure constant tattooed on his arm

Professor Webb: “Firstly, cosmological constants like alpha are often determined by peering at distant objects through powerful telescopes and then earning a PhD in Astrophysics after doing a bunch of math. Secondly, I would only get a tattoo like the one in the photo if I were currently in prison. And had rather large guns.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Would those distant objects you peer at include the Chukchi Peninsula currently attached to Russia?”

Professor Webb: “No, we mostly like to look at quasars. The Chukchi Peninsula was reserved for Sarah Palin to keep an eye on.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Fair enough. Is there anything else you have learned that you’d like to share with us Professor Webb?”

Professor Webb: “Absolutely! One of the other things that my grad students have determined is that you should NEVER press the “Escape Velocity” button on your Tesla.”

Dad said: “Do NOT press that button”. Good thing I happened to be wearing a spacesuit.

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Thank you very much Professor. One last question here: what’s next on your research agenda?”

Professor Webb: “I’d like to find out where my socks went. I have a theory that due to the high rotational velocity of the spin basket in my new washing machine, a sort of temporary tiny black hole might be forming inside of it and sucking my socks into a parallel universe.”

Kepler Hubble Jr. III: “Hmmmm…What does your wife think about this theory?”

Professor Webb: “I wish I knew. She disappeared a couple of days after the washing machine arrived. My grad students are looking for her right now.”

Recently-discovered parallel sock universe