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Laws of Physics, or Merely Local By-laws?

I heard rumors in the blogosphere, and then Science Daily broke the story 9 Sep 2010 with the headline: “Laws of Physics Vary Throughout the Universe, New Study Suggests”

The story, a page and a half, single spaced, was reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Swinburne University of Technology.

Their lede was: “A team of astrophysicists based in Australia and England has uncovered evidence that the laws of physics are different in different parts of the universe.”  They gave quotes from the team, including, from Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales (where my wife got her PhD in Physics, by coincidence.): “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 idea that “constants” of Physics are really variables is nothing new.  Science Daily also published a story about whether or not the gravitational constant varies:

Now I’ve read the paper itself: J. K. Webb, J. A. King, M. T. Murphy, V. V. Flambaum, R. F. Carswell, M. B. Bainbridge. Title: Evidence for spatial variation of the fine structure constant. Physical Review Letters, 2010.

You can read the abstract, and download the PDF

Here’s what I think.

(1) This has been treated in Science Fiction many times, such as by my fellow ex-Math professor author Vernor Vinge, who had invented the notion, local to our Galaxy, to create (he said) a gradient of intelligence, and set the plot going. It won the Hugo Award (tying for Best Novel with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis) with his 1992 novel, A Fire Upon the Deep.  Also, as Matthew B. Tepper points out, Isaac Asimov in The Gods Themselves, had such changes act as a conduit between two universes to provide effectively limitless sources of “clean” energy — but at the cost of blowing up one universe, with its trisexual aliens.

(2) The paper itself is very careful with measurements, throwing out spurious data, calibration, and statistical methodology.  But, as an ex-Astronomy professor, it looked like the Real Deal to me. Quasar spectra from the Keck Telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope both show a statistically significant dependence of the “fine structure constant” with striking consistency, quite different between the southern and northern hemispheres of the sky.  “…our results suggest a violation of the Einstein Equivalence Principle, and could infer a very large or infinite universe, within which our ‘local’ Hubble volume represents a tiny fraction, with correspondingly small variations in the physical constants.”

Science Fiction writers: start your engines!