Reasons to Believe

Are the Physical Constants Actually Constant?

Here at RTB we make a big deal about how constant laws of physics govern the universe.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article arguing that inflation does not imply a change in the laws of physics. Yet, a few days after the article posted, some scientists announced evidence that some of the physical constants (ones that determine the strengths of the physical laws) may vary through space. Does this find falsify RTB’s model?

Let’s understand the research behind the claim. A team of Australian and European scientists observed distant quasars in a search for evidence that the fine-structure constant α might vary through space or time. Because α governs the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, a change in this quantity would indeed signify a change in the laws of physics. Past studies indicated a 5 parts in 100,000 smaller value for α than measured here on Earth.1 Recently, the team looked in a different region of the sky with a different telescope in order to eliminate possible sources of systematic errors. The new observations also show a different value for α except this time the value is larger by approximately the same amount.2 For more details, listen to this Science News Flash podcast episode on the subject.

Since the two regions of the sky observed for this research are in opposite directions from Earth, the most straightforward interpretation of these two results is that the fine-structure constant varies through space. Assuming these results withstand future testing, how would such a variation affect RTB’s model?

1. The change in α described here appears to be one of variation in space, not a variation in time. Such a change in no way affects the habitability of Earth. At most it implies that the laws of physics may not support life at other locations in the universe.

2. The clearest biblical statement implying constant laws of physics is found in Jeremiah 33:25–26: Thus says the LORD, “If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.” Thus, God compares his trustworthiness to the reliability of the day/night cycle and the fixed patterns of the heavens. The variation in α described above gives no reason to doubt the predictability of either of the physical phenomena mentioned in the passage.

3. Scientists know that our theories of the physical forces are incomplete. The two most successful, quantum mechanics and general relativity, cannot be reconciled as they are currently formulated although both are needed to describe the earliest moments of the universe. Researchers often invoke models where the physical constants vary under the extreme conditions of the early universe to gain a more complete understanding. In fact, another paper published by the same scientists mentioned above finds no variation in another fundamental quantity, namely, the proton-to-electron mass ratio.3 They use the lack of variability in the mass ratio and the measured variability of the fine-structure constant to rule out many of the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) models. (These models try to unify the strong nuclear interaction with the electromagnetic and weak nuclear interactions.)

The bottom line: any measured variation in α poses no problems for RTB’s creation model and the “fixed patterns of heaven and earth.” More importantly, these research advances provide a mechanism to test models that scientists develop to describe how all the fundamental interactions might be unified. RTB expects that such testing will continue to show evidence that the God of the Bible prepared this Earth (and the universe in which it resides) to support the abundance and diversity of life it hosts.

Subjects: Laws of Physics

Dr. Jeff Zweerink

While many Christians and non-Christians see faith and science as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. Read more about Dr. Jeff Zweerink.

References:

  1. M. T. Murphy et al., “Further Evidence for a Variable Fine-Structure Constant from Keck/HIRES QSO Absorption Spectra,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 345 (October 10, 2003): 609–38.
  2. J. K. Webb et al., “Evidence for Spatial Variation of the Fine Structure Constant,” submitted to Physical Review Letters, http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.3907.
  3. J. A. King et al., “Stringent Null Constraint on Cosmological Evolution of the Proton-to-Electron Mass Ratio,” Physical Review Letters 101 (December 19, 2008): 251304.