New Tests Suggest a Fundamental Constant of Physics Isn’t The Same Across The Universe

According to measurements taken from a quasar 13 billion light-years away, scientists have discovered evidence that a fundamental scientific constant used to measure electromagnetism between charged particles can in reality be relatively inconstant.

Along with gravity, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental forces that hold everything in our Universe together. The fine-structure constant is used to calculate the strength of electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.

However, the new findings, when coupled with results from other studies, point to tiny fluctuations in this constant, which could have far-reaching implications for how we comprehend everything around us.

The most recent data also indicate that the Universe may have previously hidden ‘north’ and ‘south’ bearings, a definitive direction against which these electromagnetism changes can be mapped.

“[The new study] seems to be supporting this idea that there could be a directionality in the Universe, which is very weird indeed,” says astrophysicist John Webb, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia. “So the Universe may not be isotropic in its laws of physics – one that is the same, statistically, in all directions.”

“But in fact, there could be some direction or preferred direction in the Universe where the laws of physics change, but not in the perpendicular direction. In other words, the Universe in some sense, has a dipole structure to it.”

The electromagnetic force that surrounds us is critical in tying electrons to nuclei within atoms; without it, matter would disintegrate. It provides us with visible light and is the primary reason electricity works.

The study team was able to estimate this force as it would have appeared in the Universe when it was considerably younger and closer to its beginnings by using images and data captured by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

The data requires further testing and verification, but the team says that the current results raise a curious question: whether the idea of there being a ‘Goldilocks’ balance of fundamental forces – just perfect for life to be able to exist – actually applies throughout our Universe.

“Putting all the data together, electromagnetism seems to gradually increase the further we look, while towards the opposite direction, it gradually decreases,” says Webb.

“In other directions in the cosmos, the fine structure constant remains just that – constant. These new very distant measurements have extended our observations further than ever before.”

That idea of directionality in the Universe has been supported by independent researchers in the United States who have been studying the nature of X-rays. They’ve also discovered a cosmic alignment that happens to point in the same direction as the one discovered by the UNSW team.

It’s too early to say what this means for physics on a wider scale. The findings are absolutely worth further research at least, and mean the Grand Unified Theory – the search for one unifying force that can tie electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces together – may even have to be shelved for a while.

Indeed, research published implies that there may be a fifth fundamental force to consider. The further we dig into the Universe and learn, the more complex and strange everything appears to become.

“Our standard model of cosmology is based on an isotropic universe, one that is the same, statistically, in all directions,” says 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 research has been published in Science Advances.

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