Thursday, July 24, 2014

What if the laws of the universe are not constant?

I have been fascinated with nature for as long as I can remember.  How can one not be?  When I first understood that it is possible to understand and even predict its behaviour, I was hooked.  When considering these laws that appear to govern our universe, this code that nature follows, science assumes that it is all static - they neither fluctuate in space, nor time.  But, what if this is not the case?  What if the laws of nature themselves are transient?

Let me begin by saying that this is not an attractive notion.  The practice of science would be dramatically complicated by this.  But at its heart, science is a search for truth; this must never be sacrificed for the sake of convenience.

It is in this spirit that a 2012 study out of California State University set out to check whether or not Planck's constant is truly constant in space.  Using atomic clocks aboard various GPS satellites, the maximum variation found for Planck's constant was 0.7%, which, due to the tiny absolute value of the constant, might be attributable to measurement error.

No study has yet to conclude, with certainty, that any universal constant varies in space or time.  Such a conclusion would surely rock the scientific community.  But I approach this question of the constancy of the laws of physics with even more openness, questioning not just the constants themselves, but the actual laws.  What if general relativity is correct only far away from the epicenter of the big bang, but is only an approximation near it?  What if Maxwell's equations are correct now, but were incorrect five billion years ago and will again be incorrect five billion years from now?

No field of science would be more drastically shaken if such things were true than that of astrophysics, which deals with phenomena that occurred long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  Consider the task of analyzing a star.  The light from a star that is millions of light years away arrives to a telescope on Earth millions of years after it was emitted.  Did the photons in fact travel at a constant speed the whole time?

If the laws do change over time, then the task of rewinding the universe back to its logical origin of the big bang changes from difficult to impossible.  The entire process is based on extending the laws we know today over its multi-billion year history.

This is all very disconcerting.

One thing that draws many scientists to their field is the empowering notion of understanding and even quantifying nature.  If the code behind the universe is constantly being revised in some unpredictable fashion, science, though still practically useful, loses the generality that makes it so appealing.  Rather than mice meandering through some complex maze, we become mice in an ever-changing maze.

Though we may just be mice either way, it is less unsettling to think that there is a single and correct determination, regardless of when and where we happen to scurry.


Anonymous said...

Enjoying reading your writings including this one!
Ancient mythologies such as Buddhist mythology very emphasizes the point of impermanence. In other words, everything changes;nothing is permanent. Time, space, universe, every thing! Wubbo Ockels
, in his TED talks, has the similar point of view that scientists and philosophers may be all fooled by this inconceivable universe.

The Engineer said...

I appreciate the comment anonymous.