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The fine-structure constant and the nature of the universe - Comments

sirmailbox's Avatar Comment 1 by sirmailbox

Holy shit. That's unexpected.

On a side note, I didn't know Economist usually did much science. But I noticed the content of the article isn't as watered down as most science journalism. Good job for not putting physics in terms of stupid analogies.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 01:06:24 UTC | #509494

Daniel Schealler's Avatar Comment 2 by Daniel Schealler

Hmm... Interesting, but I'm suspicious. It does have a certain sensationalist-journalism feel to it.

I don't mean to knock them - I haven't the knowledge to make a better critique. But I'm withholding judgement until I hear about this from a reputable authority on physics.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 01:26:08 UTC | #509497

Eric Leblanc's Avatar Comment 3 by Eric Leblanc

Who ever said physics was boring?

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 02:10:20 UTC | #509509

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 4 by Neodarwinian

If this holds up then basic assumptions in physics, that the laws of physics hold through the observable universe, could be under review.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 02:38:57 UTC | #509515

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 5 by prolibertas

Comment 2 by Daniel Schealler :

Hmm... Interesting, but I'm suspicious. It does have a certain sensationalist-journalism feel to it.

I don't mean to knock them - I haven't the knowledge to make a better critique. But I'm withholding judgement until I hear about this from a reputable authority on physics.

Maybe it's just me, but I didn't feel any 'sensationalist-journalism' in this. There's none of the 'everything we thought we knew is wrong!!' or 'all physics has been overthrown!!' mania I usually associate with the annoying sensationalist types trying to get attention. It was just a simple statement of the facts, and it even included all the appropriate caveats we should bear in mind before jumping to conclusions. What more do you expect them to do? Just because an article is interesting and unexpected doesn't mean it's sensationalist. If anything, the title of this article really deserves to be MORE interesting.

Updated: Thu, 02 Sep 2010 03:10:17 UTC | #509520

Sarmatae's Avatar Comment 6 by Sarmatae

Why alpha takes on the precise value it has, so delicately fine-tuned for life, is a deep scientific mystery.

The mystery is one created by language confusing thought. That is a subtle flip in logic. Imbuing the properties of the universe with some sort of intent. I don't tend to think that the value of alpha is "fine-tuned for life". That's like saying a river is fine tuned for the survival of fish. When rivers are not. Clearly the characteristics of fish are fine-tuned (see evolution) to the properties of a river. But the rivers properties do not have intent to be fine tuned for fish. Lets put their statement in this light;

Why rivers take on the precise value they have, so delicately fine-tuned for fish, is a deep scientific mystery.

If for example you took the properties of the universe and could explain them in exact terms represented as W,X,Y,Z. Then if we could observe life emerge who's characteristics fit precisely consistent with those properties. Which is what we observe with life in ours. That is really no mystery. You have a universe with properties of W,X,Y,Z and the life in that universe exhibits the characteristics of W,X,Y,Z. The conundrum only comes up if you frame flip the logic and look at it backward and ask "Why does it appear W,X,Y,Z is fine tuned for life" When in fact the statement is "Life is fine tuned to alpha". The answer being if life does arise, which we know it has at least once, what type of life would be most probable in a universe with the properties W,X,Y,Z, what characteristics did you expect?

Lets say that we have a universe that has the following property that, (X=Stars can sustain the nuclear reactions that synthesize carbon and oxygen). Then lets ask honestly, if that property is very prevalent in the universe, from what we observe in the universe it is, what are that chances that life will arise in the universe with characteristics that do not follow with the properties of that synthesis at some point?

What would be mysterious is if life emerged with the characteristics of C,D,E,F in a universe with the properties of W,X,Y,Z. That would be inexplicable.

So here is the breakdown of that statement.

Why alpha takes on the precise value it has...

Which is a damn good question. One of genuine curiosity and worthy of scientific endeavor. A question that did perplex Feynman and still does many others. Though I don't recall, I am probably mistaken, Feynman or many other physicists attaching the next part of the statement.

so delicately fine-tuned for life...

That is usually the reporters spin on what is said. To be honest I don't think it is fine tuned for life. If the universe had different properties then life would either differ in ways we probably would have trouble grasping(is it still technically life?) or not exist at all. To get Trek geek about it "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it's life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, Captain".

is a deep scientific mystery

I disagree, it is a failing of linguistics, intentional or perhaps unintentional frame flipping logic.

I would go on to the next sentence but I have some other reading to do.

EDIT: added "Which is what we observe with life in ours."

Updated: Thu, 02 Sep 2010 04:19:45 UTC | #509523

Danno Davis's Avatar Comment 7 by Danno Davis

@prolibertas: Well put! With what little comprehension of physics I possess I was pretty blown away by the article--and yes, the content of the article.

Seriously. This article may have made my night, strangely.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 05:37:21 UTC | #509538

EvN's Avatar Comment 8 by EvN

This is a very interesting article and useful for the layman. The god-fine-tuned-the-universe-for-us-argument has always seemed a bit of a non sequitur to me and I am glad to understand the whole concept just a bit better.

As an aside: I particularly liked:

Such an important result needed independent verification using a different telescope ...

and

Other teams of astronomers are already on the case.

This is how science works and I will use this as an example in future.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 05:57:31 UTC | #509542

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 9 by Anaximander

Sarmatae: But the rivers properties do not have intent to be fine tuned for fish.

Yes. But there is a slight difference: if there is no carbon and oxygen, there would (or so it seems) be no evolution to fine-tune the properties of living things to the properties of the (non-carbon) universe. (There would be no living things.)

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 06:54:28 UTC | #509559

Myrick's Avatar Comment 10 by Myrick

@ sirmailbox: "I didn't know Economist usually did much science. But I noticed the content of the article isn't as watered down as most science journalism. Good job for not putting physics in terms of stupid analogies."

It's not what the magazine is best known for, but The Economist has a rather good science/technology section and has produced some of the finest science writers in the business (Matt Ridley and Olivia Judson immediately come to mind).

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 07:34:05 UTC | #509581

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 11 by Jos Gibbons

The procedure this article describes for calculating alpha is incomplete; the true formula is even more complex. There's also an additional factor by which we must multiply, the Coulomb constant (electromagnetism's equivalent of Newton's gravitational constant; it is 1/4piepsilon0).

The article mentions the open question of which of the components is varying. I'm afraid none seems plausible enough for the "1 % chance of random error" option to be neglected. If the electron's charge varies, an electron moving along while all other charged particles stay put would violate charge conservation. Everything else is a Planck unit, more an artifact of our chosen units of measurement than a constant in need of explanation.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 08:02:47 UTC | #509592

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 12 by Steve Zara

If the electron's charge varies, an electron moving along while all other charged particles stay put would violate charge conservation.

Something very odd would be happening in regions where alpha was changing.

I'm skeptical.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 08:08:13 UTC | #509594

John Desclin's Avatar Comment 13 by John Desclin

To comment # 6 by Sarmatae: I fully agree, this was logic the bad way around

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 08:10:49 UTC | #509596

mmurray's Avatar Comment 14 by mmurray

Some additional information from one of the authors

http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/astro/research/PWAPR03webb.pdf

Michael

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 08:18:16 UTC | #509602

Ivan The Not So Bad's Avatar Comment 15 by Ivan The Not So Bad

This was touched on in this week's Guardian Science Weekly podcast (and made me stop mid step on my lunchtime stroll in St James's Park).

And, as Myrick says, the Economist (not what you would call a sensation seeking publication) has a fine science section each week.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 08:49:23 UTC | #509618

Reginald's Avatar Comment 16 by Reginald

And now we have Stephen Hawkings new book The grand Design, which shows God-didn't-do-it. Things are looking up for naturalism generally.

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 09:00:46 UTC | #509625

TheRationalizer's Avatar Comment 17 by TheRationalizer

If the constant IS different in various places we look then I wonder if it will be proportional to distance. So, when the universe was young the constant was low but it increases over time, and we are now just passing through a period which supports life like our own?

Hopefully this will be another rock god isn't hiding under. Of course theists will still throw up the "everything from nothing" argument - that one will be fun to crack, I hope it happens in my lifetime :)

Thu, 02 Sep 2010 10:51:09 UTC | #509679

Greyman's Avatar Comment 18 by Greyman

Comment 17 by TheRationalizer :

If the constant IS different in various places we look then I wonder if it will be proportional to distance. So, when the universe was young the constant was low but it increases over time, and we are now just passing through a period which supports life like our own? Hopefully this will be another rock god isn't hiding under. Of course theists will still throw up the "everything from nothing" argument - that one will be fun to crack, I hope it happens in my lifetime :)

  They addressed that in the full artical.  Apparently, no, the variance isn’t along radial distance, but in an arc sweep.  So it appears to be a change over space, not time.  Which would have a whole different implication.

Updated: Thu, 02 Sep 2010 23:35:48 UTC | #510280

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 19 by Bernard Hurley

The idea that "goldilocks" conditions may be explained by the universe having different properties in different places is not new. For instance in a letter to the editor of Nature entitled "On Certain Questions of the Theory of Gasses" in 1895 Boltzmann both defends his H-theorem and to attack Lord Salisbury's "Nature is a mystery" argument - essentially an early "fine-tuning" argument.

He concludes the letter with an idea he attributes to Schütz:

Assuming the universe is great enough, the probability that such a small part of it as our world should be in its present state is no longer small.

If this assumption were correct ... Then the afore-mentioned H-curve would form a representation of what takes place in the universe. The summits of the curve would represent the worlds where visible motion and life exist.

Note that the H-theorem, which says a certain value H can only decrease in an isolated system is actually a formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics since the entropy of N statistically unrelated particles is related to H by the equation:

S = -kNH

where k is Boltzmann's constant.

What Boltzmann and Schütz are arguing is something like:

If we assume a universe in thermal equilibrium, then provided it is large enough there will nevertheless be regions of thermal fluctuation (including, incidentally, regions where entropy is decreasing) and so it is actually quite likely that there will be regions or worlds, as he calls them, which are right for life to exist. Thus answering Salisbury's "Nature is a Mystery" argument.

Fri, 03 Sep 2010 01:01:12 UTC | #510325

Sarmatae's Avatar Comment 20 by Sarmatae

Comment 9 by Anaximander

Yes. But there is a slight difference: if there is no 

carbon and oxygen, there would (or so it seems) be no evolution to fine-tune the properties of living things to the properties of the (non-carbon) universe. (There would be no living things.)

Apologies I tried to get on the site earlier today and got a "back log message" or something or other and couldn't. Had more success tonight.

I would not be prepared to say that there would be no evolution if the fine tune constants of the universe were different. Or if such a thing as evolution would be possible or not. Perhaps there are other possibilities in a universe with different fine-tuned constants that we simply cannot imagine. I cannot know such things. We can speculate that there very well might be the evolution of something we can recognize as life of a different sort not mirroring our own in another type of universe which is based on different sets of fine-tuning. Where there are principles of adaptation of these "lifeforms" along the lines of evolutionary change to best suit environment and conditions etc. That evolution may not follow all the same specific conditions of life in this universe but I see no reason why there couldn't be a type of evolution in a universe not exactly like ours. It wouldn't surprise me if that were found to be true or not. That has as much probability as saying there would be no evolution or life if things were different. I'll be honest I just don't know either way.

Complete flight of speculation here to get the point across. Say for instance if several properties of a universe were different in some aspect from our own. Where it was actually possible to have an ideal gas. Where the molecules in helium gas don't interact with each other, they bounce off each other without losing energy. At least at certain median temperatures. Lets also say this "property" of an ideal helium gas is very prevalent throughout that universe. Since it was such a common property of that universe it was probable that when there was an abiogenesis of life that it would have been very probable that life was dependent on that property to exist, and it evolved along those lines also. Eventually "they" might be saying the same things about their universe(with their equivalent of thought and communication) as we might about our supposed "fine-tuned" or "Goldilocks" universe. They may say that it is a damn good thing that Helium does not lose energy when the molecules bounce off each other at the exact temperature needed for life. Because in their universe if helium did lose energy at those temperatures life could not exist. Some of them would say "Our Universe is so very fine-tuned just for us, isn't that mysterious? and comfy too!". No in fact it was just very probable that life would have evolved with characteristics that coincide with the properties of your universe. Perhaps if conditions in that universe were just a little askew, where helium does lose some energy when the molecules bounce off each other, then life as "we" know it would have evolved. Or not. You would need an entire universal model with different fine-tuned constants and let it play out in order to know for sure I suppose. I don't have one handy lol.

If I grasp what they are saying in this article then it could be empirical confirmation the universe is not "fine-tuned". Not that it made sense to leap to that conclusion in the first place. But then even they flip the logic on its head both ways inconsistently in the same paragraph and say;

Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life,

Ok so they relent the idea that perhaps the whole universe is not fine-tuned for life. Because apparently there may now be empirical reasons to think that it is not.

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.

What? No I don't think the fundamental constants "happen to be just right for it(humanity)". Strange the focus being on humanity specifically also, as if in order to better sell the idea that the universe just happens to be just right, tailor made no less, they play to the ego. I'll get to that.

There is more than a semantic difference to say instead, life is just right for the fundamental constants. I think life has the characteristics that it has, BECAUSE the fundamental constants in this niche of the universe are what they are. Not the other way around. It's really that simple. (Finding out exactly how that came about, explaining why that is so and where that leads us to etc, is very difficult. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that is the final answer to life, the universe and everything. The answer to that is still 42)

If these "fundamental constants" were different then there may be "something else" life like, or perhaps nothing life like. More likely something I can't imagine as I am pretty limited in my experiences with alternate universes. Back to why the specification of "humanity". I hate to put it like this but saying that the fundamental constants happen to be just right for our kind of life is using a rationality where narcissism and ego provide the answer to a "mysterious question" that was completely unnecessary to begin with. In order to frame a supposedly deep question where life(read humanity) plays the central role in a reason for the fundamental constants of the universe.

A lot of people were hurt and offended over that fall from the Ptolemaic view of the universe, so I don't mean to be insensitive. But perhaps some are again setting themselves up for another let down with this "The universe is just right for life(usually meaning us)" nonsense I think.

Updated: Fri, 03 Sep 2010 05:51:09 UTC | #510385

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 21 by Anaximander

I would not be prepared to say that there would be no evolution if the fine tune constants of the universe were different. Or if such a thing as evolution would be possible or not. Perhaps there are other possibilities in a universe with different fine-tuned constants that we simply cannot imagine.

You are probably right. If we change the fine-structure constant a little bit - so that there would not be carbon, oxygen etc. - it would be difficult to get complex chemical structures. But if we change other constants too, who knows what happens.

Updated: Fri, 03 Sep 2010 06:57:05 UTC | #510398