UNSW Science’s Professor John Webb says the fine structure constant is a measure of electromagnetism—one of the four fundamental forces in nature (the others are gravity, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force).
“The fine structure constant is the quantity that physicists use as a measure of the strength of the electromagnetic force,” Professor Webb says.
“It’s a dimensionless number and it involves the speed of light, something called Planck’s constant and the electron charge, and it’s a ratio of those things. And it’s the number that physicists use to measure the strength of the electromagnetic force.”
The electromagnetic force keeps electrons whizzing around a nucleus in every atom of the universe—without it, all matter would fly apart. Up until recently, it was believed to be an unchanging force throughout time and space. But over the last two decades, Professor Webb has noticed anomalies in the fine structure constant whereby electromagnetic force measured in one particular direction of the universe seems ever so slightly different.
“We found a hint that that number of the fine structure constant was different in certain regions of the universe. Not just as a function of time, but actually also in direction in the universe, which is really quite odd if it’s correct … but that’s what we found.”
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