Have fundamental constants changed, and what would it prove?
Published: 3 February 2006 (GMT+10)
Recent news headlines have been buzzing with reports of research purportedly showing that fundamental constants of nature may have changed, including the fine structure constant, which is related to the speed of light.1 We have received many inquiries about this, so this is a brief response.
What was discovered?
A research team led by John Webb, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, intend to publish their research on August 27 in Physical Review Letters. (Many scientists frown on media announcements before the proper peer review / publication process is complete).
They used the world’s largest single telescope, the 9-metre Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to analyse light from quasars about 12 billion light years away. In particular, they analysed how metal atoms such as zinc or aluminium in gas clouds absorbed the light. A spectrometer splits the light into its different wavelengths, but there are black lines where light has been absorbed by the metal atoms. The particular pattern is a ‘fingerprint’ for the element, which is how astronomers can identify elements in space.2
From the splitting of certain lines, spectroscopists can deduce a number called the fine structure constant (FSC or alpha, α).3 This is about 1/137, but has been measured very precisely to at least seven significant figures — (7,297,351 ± 6) x 10-9. The FSC is a measure of the strength of the electromagnetic force, and is inversely proportional to the speed of light.4
The researchers claim to have found that spectra from such far distant clouds indicate that the FSC was 0.001% smaller. Since they presume that light from 12 billion light years away comes from 12-billion-year-old objects, they have claimed that the FSC has been increasing with time. It may imply that the speed of light was 0.001% faster in the past too.
What are the implications for creationists?
- If correct, then the usual theories that constants have always been that—constant—may need to be modified. Dr Sheldon Glashow of Boston University, who received a Nobel Prize in physics in 1979, said that the importance of this discovery would rank ‘10 on a scale of 1 to 10.’5
- However, some string theories involving a 10- or 26-dimensional universe are compatible with changing constants, but they are also very contentious. These extra dimensions above the normal four (three spatial dimensions and one time dimension) are supposed to be curled or folded, so they are undetectable by any physical experiment so far. Therefore no-one should claim that such theories prove or disprove the Bible, and it’s sheer folly to claim that the Bible actually teaches 10 or more physical dimensions, as some progressive creationists do.
- Some creationists, led by Barry Setterfield, have proposed that the speed of light was much faster in the past; the main anti-creationist (and progressive creationist) argument was the supposed constancy of fundamental laws, which led to accusations of ignorance etc. Dr Webb’s research undermines this ‘in principle’ objection. So did a New Scientist cover story two years ago, which also proposed the ‘heresy’ of c-decay.6 This would supposedly solve some problems with the ‘big bang’ theory. Apparently, this is OK for the big bang—it’s only wrong to question established theories when this is done to support Biblical creation, it seems!
- However, this research by itself does not support radical c-decay theory either. The change is billions of times too small. But Setterfield’s particular theory predicted that the FSC would remain constant,7 and given the small change and tentative nature of this new discovery, by itself this is not conclusive evidence against the Setterfield theory. For comparison, the creationist physicist Dr Keith Wanser is also open to the possibility of c-decay but rejects the Setterfield theory—see interview. See also the currently favored creationist answer to the distant starlight problem, also on the Starlight and Time video (above right).
- Also, not everyone agrees with the conclusions. Dr John Bahcall, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., said that the complicated statistical techniques used could be hiding sources of error.8 But Dr Massimo Stiavelli, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said their work would probably have been regarded as too careful to doubt if they had not been proposing something so revolutionary. Even so, he is reserving judgment.9
- This is once again a good lesson—let’s not be too quick to rush to judgement based on media reports. This applies both to pro-evolution topics like the latest Mars life, feathered dinosaur and ape-men claims; but also to claims that seem superficially to support creationist models, such as the Black Sea ‘flood’,
- Another good lesson is not to be frightened into eisegetical10 contortions of Scripture when some ‘assured finding’ of science seems to contradict the plain reading of the text. If something as supposedly immutable as the FSC, a part of the ‘hard’ operational science of physico-chemistry, is open to question, then there is even less reason to reinterpret Scripture on the more contentious areas dealing with the past, i.e. the latest ‘missing links’, radiometric ‘dates’, or geological features supposedly incompatible with a world-wide Flood. We should be reminded of Prof. John Rendle-Short’s father, the eminent surgeon and Christian apologist Dr Arthur Rendle Short. He accepted theistic evolution largely because of the Piltdown hoax, and always wrestled with the unscriptural corollary of death before sin, but died just before the hoax was exposed. See the interview with Prof. Rendle-Short for more information, or his book Green Eye of the Storm.
- E.g. (a) James Glanz and Dennis Overbye, ‘Cosmic laws like speed of light might be changing, a study finds’, New York Times, 15 August 2001; (b) Cho, A., Nothing stays constant, New Scientist 171(2304):11, 18 August 2001. Return to text.
- The light is absorbed when the energy of the photon or ‘light particle’, inversely proportional to the wavelength, precisely matches the difference between quantum energy levels of electrons in the atoms. The energy E is related to the wavelength λ by E = hc/λ, where h = Planck’s Constant and c = the speed of light in a vacuum. These energy levels are specific to an atom, which is why they can identify the type of atom as a fingerprint can identify a person. Return to text.
- The splitting is caused by particular properties of the electrons in the atom. An electron in an atom generates a magnetic field, from its ‘spin’ and often by its ‘orbit’ of the atomic nucleus. (It’s important to note that in quantum mechanics, the terms ‘orbit’ and ‘spin’ do not mean that electrons are regarded as solid balls in orbit and spinning on their axes. See also a creationist view on quantum mechanics.) These magnetic fields interact—spin-orbit interaction—and this splits the energy levels, which in turn causes splitting of the spectral lines, called the fine structure. The intensity of this splitting is proportional to the square of the fine structure constant (at least in one-electron atoms, i.e. hydrogen and other atoms that have lost all but one electron). Return to text.
- α = 2πe2/hc, where e is the electronic charge, h and c as per Ref. 2. α is a dimensionless quantity, i.e. it has no units. Return to text.
- Glashow, S., cited in Ref. 1a. Return to text.
- Barrow, J., Is nothing sacred? New Scientist 163(2196):28–32, 24 July 1999. Return to text.
- Setterfield proposed that since energy must be conserved in atomic orbits, then h must be inversely proportional to c. Therefore any constant that contains the product hc with other constants, including α, must also be constant. Norman, T.G. and Setterfield, B., The Atomic Constants, Light and Time, pp. 33–39, 1990. Return to text.
- Bahcall, J., cited in Ref. 1a. Return to text.
- Stiavelli, M., cited in Ref. 1a. Return to text.
- Eisegesis is the errant practice of reading things into Scripture, i.e. imposing fallible human ideas onto God’s Word. The opposite is the correct practice of exegesis, meaning reading out of Scripture, i.e. allowing the God’s to teach us. Return to text.