Not Your Daddy’s Universe

by wjw on September 10, 2010

A few years ago, I wrote a story called “Send Them Flowers” in which the protagonist was able to shift to universes in which the fine-structure constant (otherwise known as alpha) was slightly different from our own.

We skipped through the borderlands of Probability, edging farther and farther away from the safe universes that had become so much less safe for us, and into the fringe areas where stars were cloudy smears of phosphorescent gas and the Periodic Table wasn’t a guide, but a series of ever-more-hopeful suggestions . . . freaky Probability was fizzing in our veins.  Our metabolisms were pumped by a shift in the electromagnetic fine structure constant.  Oxygen was captured and transported and burned and united with carbon and exhaled with greater efficiency.  We didn’t have to breathe as often as in our home Probability, and still our bodies ran a continuous fever from the boost in our metabolic rate.

Another few more steps into Probability and the multiverse would start fucking with the strong and weak nuclear forces, causing our bodies to fly apart or the calcium in our bones to turn radioactive.  But here, we remained more or less ourselves even as certain chemical reactions become much easier.

Looks like the story might not have needed those extra universes after all.

Sage pointed me at an article in the Economist that had been sitting on my coffee table for the last week, in which it is pointed out that the electromagnetic fine-structure constant may vary . . . within our own universe!

Why alpha takes on the precise value it does, so delicately fine-tuned for life, is a deep scientific mystery. A new piece of astrophysical research may, however, have uncovered a crucial piece of the puzzle. In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia presents evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all. Rather, it seems to vary from place to place within the universe. If their results hold up to scrutiny they will have profound implications—for they suggest that the universe stretches far beyond what telescopes can observe, and that the laws of physics vary within it. Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life, then, humanity finds itself in a corner of space where, Goldilocks-like, the values of the fundamental constants happen to be just right for it.

Turns out that looking in one direction, alpha is a wee bit smaller than we find it here.  And looking in the opposite direction, alpha is just a teeny-tiny bit larger.

This isn’t how universes are supposed to work, folks.  The laws within universes are supposed to be, well, universal. (That’s why we call them universes!)

So now universal laws just depend on which way you’re looking.  I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of depressing.

(It’s going to be about twelve seconds before someone works out some way that this justifies believing in UFOs, astrology, and spoon-bending.  Wanna bet?)

This is so awesome that the consequences simply escape my brain.   I’m finding my preconceptions totally challenged here.  So I’m going to do what I usually do when this happens— I’m going to have a drink and sulk!

Guys, are you with me?

Ralf the Dog September 10, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Just a thought, Go too far to the left and smoking becomes even more hazardous. Go to far to the right and you cant get the sig to light up.

This could explain all the UFO’s that keep popping up at my house. I bet the gradient between the alpha deprived part of space and the alpha rich is moving. There is a VERY slow speed migration away from the less energetic part of the universe.

Does anyone think this could be why it is much easier to bend a spoon when it is pointed N/S vs E/W? I bet it is some kind of energy gradient thing.

Now I am off to use the difference in energy from one side to the other to make a perpetual motion device to power my car (If you don’t see me again, the government and the oil companies got me.)

PS. Yes, it bothers me a bit that the universal constants are not universally constant.

Barbara Webb September 10, 2010 at 11:36 pm

I’m sorry. My mind is too blown to comment on this.

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I remember Vernor Vinge’s stories that had the speed of light as being not so constant along with affecting the speed of cognition. What actually killed off the dinosaurs was the solar system moving into an area where thought became almost impossible.

The universe really is stranger than we think.

DensityDuck September 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm

I hate it when people say “these values are exactly the right values needed for life.”

That’s like the water in a puddle saying “this hole we’re in is exactly the right shape for the blob which we have formed.”

Evan September 12, 2010 at 5:57 am

I don’t find it depressing; I find it marvelously explanatory if true. It explains both why our existence is possible – and why flying saucers aren’t popping up at our house, aka Fermi Paradox .

Many-worlds has always been an answer to the anthropic-universe question: if laws vary, somewhere they’ll be right for the existence of observers. But those other universes are hypothetical – and variation in this one is a much simpler explanation.

And if life isn’t possible everywhere in the universe, but only in our corner – it explains why aliens haven’t come visiting. Fewer places for life to potentially develop and then develop high technology…..a lower number to punch into the Drake Equation.

@Density, it’s seriously debatable how far one can take that point….see “Strong Anthropic Principle” if you’re not familiar with the counterarguments already.

Ralf the Dog September 12, 2010 at 11:04 am

@ Evan,

From what I can tell, the difference is minimal from one side of the Hubble Radius to the other. I don’t think this will have much effect on anything as trivially small as a galaxy. This should not effect the Drake Equations anywhere near us.

Note: I have always wanted to say, “… as trivially small as a galaxy.”

Evan September 12, 2010 at 11:28 pm

^Hm. You’re right about the galaxy. I’m not sure how far technologically advanced life could theoretically spread over the life of the universe, i.e. where life in other galaxies could have arrived here if it existed. If so, and depending on what the other values in the Drake Equation are, this is still Fermi Paradox related. I may be reaching.

Tina Black September 12, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Poul Anderson did a story long ago where coming out of a certain place in the Galaxy radically changed intelligence. Brain Wave? It was in the Boucher treasury of Science Fiction.

Ralf the Dog September 13, 2010 at 9:36 am

@ Evan,

The way I see it, there are two limiting factors.

1. The speed of light. Lets say the little green men can not travel faster than light. Lets say they started at the far end of the Hubble radius. It would take them about 5 to 7.5 billion years to get here. That is non stop travel with no bathroom breaks (I assume they drive in shifts or they would get quite tired before they arrived).

2. Why would someone want to drive 7.5 billion light years just to see us? There is lots to see in your own galaxy. Assuming you have the ability to go from one galaxy to the next, there would be many more interesting places between here and there. This is a rather boring spot.

My take on the Fermi Paradox has to do with cameras designed to look like clocks or a button on a shirt.

Human technology has advanced to the point where we can observe each other without tipping the watched off. We can hide cameras in anything. I would not be surprised if we had swarms of stealth bug cams in the near future.

If we can do this today, an alien civilization 10,000 years more advanced could learn everything there is to know about us by putting a marble sized device 10 AU away from the Earth. If they wanted blood samples, they could float down mosquito bots that would not only take the sample, it would analyze the sample with greater computational power than the human race will have over the next 500 years.

Do aliens exist? probably. Do they know we exist? possibly. If they don’t want us to know they exist, it would not be hard for them to hide. They may even be reading this post. (Mr. Williams, I am sure you are one of the LGM’s favorite authors.)

DensityDuck September 14, 2010 at 11:01 pm

@Evan: The Anthropic Principle comes from the same intellectual place as Intelligent Design, and is equally valid.

Evan September 17, 2010 at 1:17 am

@Ralf – OK, I’m convinced. The universe is estimated to be about 13.75 billion years old, and the oldest space travelers would likely be significantly younger. The Fermi paradox, as I understand it, is not just about aliens coming to visit, but aliens spreading throughout the universe, driven by the ordinary tendency of living things to self-replicate. (So I think the micro-camera thing doesn’t explain it away; we’d notice if the Oort cloud was being dissasembled for raw materials by self-replicating machines, for example. As it probably would be if technologically advanced civilizations were common and longlasting – and if interstellar travel is remotely practical.)

So at near lightspeed they could theoretically be here from beyond the Hubble radius. But as they probably would not spread at lightspeed, or anything close to it – even their self-replicating machines, if those are possible, probably would not – I buy your overall point. No Fermi paradox relevance to this finding.

The other implications of it are still plenty marvelous, of course.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.