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September 09, 2010

Evidence for variation in one of the physical laws - the fine structure constant

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We previously reported observations of quasar spectra from the Keck telescope suggesting a smaller value of the fine structure constant, alpha, at high redshift.

A new sample of 153 measurements from the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), probing a different direction in the universe, also depends on redshift, but in the opposite sense, that is, alpha appears on average to be larger in the past. The combined dataset is well represented by a spatial dipole, significant at the 4.1 sigma level, in the direction right ascension 17.3 +/- 0.6 hours, declination -61 +/- 9 degrees. A detailed analysis for systematics, using observations duplicated at both telescopes, reveals none which are likely to emulate this result.

The results suggest a violation of the Einstein Equivalence Principle, and could infer a very large or in finite universe, within which our `local' Hubble volume represents a tiny fraction, with correspondingly small variations in the physical constants.


Looking to the north with Keck we see, on average, a smaller alpha in distant galaxies, but when looking south with the VLT we see a larger alpha."

"It varies by only a tiny amount – about one part in 100,000 – over most of the observable universe, but it's possible that much larger variations could occur beyond our observable horizon," Mr King said.

The discovery will force scientists to rethink their understanding of Nature's laws. "The fine structure constant, and other fundamental constants, are absolutely central to our current theory of physics. If they really do vary, we'll need a better, deeper theory," Dr Michael Murphy from Swinburne University said. "While a 'varying constant' would shake our understanding of the world around us extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What we're finding is extraordinary, no doubt about that.”


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