Is There Nothing Certain? Even the Fundamental Laws of Physics May Be Mere Suggestions

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Albert Einstein never did turn relativity into what he always meant it to be — just one part of a "unified field theory," a single set of universal laws marrying the Newtonian and subatomic worlds. He died bemoaning the spread of probability-based quantum physics — "God does not play dice with the universe," he famously insisted — but he never could top it, and succeeding generations of scientists haven’t come much closer.

Now it turns out maybe he had some bad data. A team of astrophysicists, peering into deep space through the world’s largest single telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have found what they say are small variations in the "fine structure constant" — the physical constant on which all others, including Einstein’s own "c," (the speed of light) are built.

That’s if Dr. John K. Webb of the University of New South Wales in Sydney and his team have it right. The team was looking into deep space at the way gas clouds soak up light from quasars and found patterns of absorption that the team couldn’t explain in any other way but the most shocking: the "fine structure constant," also known as "alpha," may not be so constant after all. In other words, the laws of physics may not be as fixed in stone as we might think.

The team itself is cautious about the implications. "It's possible that there is a time evolution of the laws of physics," Webb told the New York Times — but "if it's correct, it's the result of a lifetime."

In a Q&A, TIME science editor Frederic Golden explains. How big a deal is this?

Frederic Golden: As Einstein said about relativity, if one thing goes wrong, the whole theory falls apart like a house of cards. And in terms of the fundamental laws of physics and the universe — which are supposed to be universal — this could be the one thing

The fine structure constant is such a fundamental value that almost everything else is built on it, from the speed of light to the size of an electron. It’s supposed to be what makes the universe what it is.

But if in the 13 billion years that the universe has been around (and that’s what looking into deep space is, looking back in time toward the Big Bang), the fine constant has changed with age, even the minor change of 1 in 100,000 these scientists are talking about has profound implications. This was a figure that was supposed to be rock solid.

Is there any theory out there that could accommodate this?

This does play into one existing theory: string theory. In essence, string theory is the idea that the basic building block of the universe are these invisible strings and that the oscillation of those strings are responsible for all physical phenomena — just as all musical notes can be played on the strings of a violin.

String theorists also hold that space contains tiny, unseen dimensions beyond the three (plus the fourth, time) we’re familiar with now — and one way to explain the mutability of the fine constant in deep space is by assuming the existence of those added dimensions.

What would Einstein say if he were alive today?

He’d probably be pleased. He was a revolutionary by nature, an impish iconoclast, and a discovery like this, which — if it turns out to be correct — challenges the very nature of how we’ve assumed the universe looks and acts, would have been very exciting to him. As it is to today’s physicists — this study is going be combed over and combed over, and it’s going to provoke an enormous amount of discussion. If it holds up, it could change the way we look at the universe, and Einstein was always interested in that.

String theory certainly has the potential to do what Einstein couldn’t — happily unify the subatomic and Newtonian worlds — and he’d probably prefer it to a universe explained by quantum theory. Einstein hated the idea of God playing dice with the universe — a God that played violin would have been much more to his liking.