Skip to comments.Speed of light may have changed recently
Posted on 06/30/2004 1:35:28 PM PDT by NukeMan
Speed of light may have changed recently
19:00 30 June 04
The speed of light, one of the most sacrosanct of the universal physical constants, may have been lower as recently as two billion years ago - and not in some far corner of the universe, but right here on Earth.
The controversial finding is turning up the heat on an already simmering debate, especially since it is based on re-analysis of old data that has long been used to argue for exactly the opposite: the constancy of the speed of light and other constants.
A varying speed of light contradicts Einstein's theory of relativity, and would undermine much of traditional physics. But some physicists believe it would elegantly explain puzzling cosmological phenomena such as the nearly uniform temperature of the universe. It might also support string theories that predict extra spatial dimensions.
The fine structure constant
The threat to the idea of an invariable speed of light comes from measurements of another parameter called the fine structure constant, or alpha, which dictates the strength of the electromagnetic force. The speed of light is inversely proportional to alpha, and though alpha also depends on two other constants (see graphic), many physicists tend to interpret a change in alpha as a change in the speed of light. It is a valid simplification, says Victor Flambaum of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
It was Flambaum, along with John Webb and colleagues, who first seriously challenged alpha's status as a constant in 1998. Then, after exhaustively analysing how the light from distant quasars was absorbed by intervening gas clouds, they claimed in 2001 that alpha had increased by a few parts in 105 in the past 12 billion years.
Natural nuclear reactor
But then German researchers studying photons emitted by caesium and hydrogen atoms reported earlier in June that they had seen no change in alpha to within a few parts in 1015 over the period from 1999 to 2003 (New Scientist, 26 June) though the result does not rule out that alpha was changing billions of years ago.
Throughout the debate, physicists who argued against any change in alpha have had one set of data to fall back on. It comes from the world's only known natural nuclear reactor, found at Oklo in Gabon, West Africa.
The Oklo reactor started up nearly two billion years ago when groundwater filtered through crevices in the rocks and mixed with uranium ore to trigger a fission reaction that was sustained for hundreds of thousands of years. Several studies that have analysed the relative concentrations of radioactive isotopes left behind at Oklo have concluded that nuclear reactions then were much the same as they are today, which implies alpha was the same too.
That is because alpha directly influences the ratio of these isotopes. In a nuclear chain reaction like the one that occurred at Oklo, the fission of each uranium-235 nucleus produces neutrons, and nearby nuclei can capture these neutrons.
For example, samarium-149 captures a neutron to become samarium-150, and since the rate of neutron capture depends on the value of alpha, the ratio of the two samarium isotopes in samples collected from Oklo can be used to calculate alpha.
A number of studies done since Oklo was discovered have found no change in alpha over time. "People started quoting the reactor [data] as firm evidence that the constants hadn't changed," says Steve Lamoreaux of Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Now, Lamoreaux, along with LANL colleague Justin Torgerson, has re-analysed the Oklo data using what he says are more realistic figures for the energy spectrum of the neutrons present in the reactor. The results have surprised him. Alpha, it seems, has decreased by more than 4.5 parts in 108 since Oklo was live (Physical Review D, vol 69, p121701).
That translates into a very small increase in the speed of light (assuming no change in the other constants that alpha depends on), but Lamoreaux's new analysis is so precise that he can rule out the possibility of zero change in the speed of light. "It's pretty exciting," he says.
So far the re-examination of the Oklo data has not drawn any fire. "The analysis is fine," says Thibault Damour of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (IHES) in Bures-sur-Yvette in France, who co-authored a 1996 Oklo study that found no change in alpha. Peter Moller of LANL, who, along with Japanese researchers, published a paper in 2000 about the Oklo reactor that also found no change in alpha, says that Lamoreaux's assumptions are reasonable.
The analysis might be sound, and the assumptions reasonable, but some physicists are reluctant to accept the conclusions. "I can't see a particular mistake," says Flambaum. "However, the claim is so revolutionary there should be many independent confirmations."
While Flambaum's own team found that alpha was different 12 billion years ago, the new Oklo result claims that alpha was changing as late as two billion years ago. If other methods confirm the Oklo finding, it will leave physicists scrambling for new theories. "It's like opening a gateway," says Dmitry Budker, a colleague of Lamoreaux's at the University of California at Berkeley.
Some physicists would happily accept a variable alpha. For example, if it had been lower in the past, meaning a higher speed of light, it would solve the "horizon problem".
Cosmologists have struggled to explain why far-flung regions of the universe are at roughly the same temperature. It implies that these regions were once close enough to exchange energy and even out the temperature, yet current models of the early universe prevent this from happening, unless they assume an ultra-fast expansion right after the big bang.
However, a higher speed of light early in the history of the universe would allow energy to pass between these areas in the form of light.
Variable "constants" would also open the door to theories that used to be off limits, such as those which break the laws of conservation of energy. And it would be a boost to versions of string theory in which extra dimensions change the constants of nature at some places in space-time.
But "there is no accepted varying-alpha theory", warns Flambaum. Instead, there are competing theories, from those that predict a linear rate of change in alpha, to those that predict rapid oscillations. John Barrow, who has pioneered varying-alpha theories at the University of Cambridge, says that the latest Oklo result does not favour any of the current theories. "You would expect alpha to stop [changing] five to six billion years ago," he says.
Before Lamoreaux's Oklo study can count in favour of any varying alpha theory, there are some issues to be addressed. For one, the exact conditions at Oklo are not known. Nuclear reactions run at different rates depending on the temperature of the reactor, which Lamoreaux assumed was between 227 and 527°C.
Damour says the temperature could vary far more than this. "You need to reconstruct the temperature two billion years ago deep down in the ground," he says.
Damour also argues that the relative concentrations of samarium isotopes may not be as well determined as Lamoreaux has assumed, which would make it impossible to rule out an unchanging alpha. But Lamoreaux points out that both assumptions about the temperature of the Oklo reactor and the ratio of samarium isotopes were accepted in previous Oklo studies.
Another unknown is whether other physical constants might have varied along with, or instead of, alpha. Samarium-149's ability to capture a neutron also depends on another constant, alpha(s), which governs the strength of the strong nuclear attraction between the nucleus and the neutron.
And in March, Flambaum claimed that the ratio of different elements left over from just after the big bang suggests that alpha(s) must have been different then compared with its value today (Physical Review D, vol 69, p 063506).
While Lamoreaux has not addressed any possible change in alpha(s) in his Oklo study, he argues that it is important to focus on possible changes in alpha because the Oklo data has become such a benchmark in the debate over whether alpha can vary. "I've spent my career going back and checking things that are 'known' and it always leads to new ideas," he says.
Eugenie Samuel Reich
There may be some merit to this story, through careful observations, I noticed my electric meter runs much faster when I turn on the lights and the air conditioner in the house.
Ahem. Nothing existed 6000 years ago, Mr. Beelzebub. Where do you get these crazy questions from? Sheesh!
"may have been lower as recently as two billion years ago"
lol...we I guess recent is objective when discussing the life of the universe. It would help explain a lot of things though.
Well, I guess! I'll just go along with this whole change in the speed of life...after all, I don't wanna cause no trouble. If it will make life go smoother....I guess (hehe)
Light has speeded up. I used to be able to turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark. Now I can't.
Ummmm, that was 6008 years ago...
Yeah, but I usually skip a couple versions before upgrading. So I'll wait for one or two more adjustments to relativity theory before I upgrade.
Q: What would happen if the speed of light were only sixty miles per hour?
A: As we approach the speed of light, the aging process slows down. So, if the speed of light were sixty miles per hour, we would have even more people speeding, especially older people trying to stay young. As a matter of fact, physics would demand that we go faster than the speed of light. The safest thing is to drive at a steady sixty to keep time and the highway patrol off our necks. Airplanes would become obsolete in this slow light world, because you would be going so fast, relatively speaking, that you'd be back before you even left. This would make business trips unnecessary and lead to economic collapse.
So, to answer your question, life, if the speed of light were sixty miles per hour, would be youthful, fast, and dark.
The flashing 12:00 symbol on my VCR seems to have slowed down a bit
I win. Don't you love logical debate?
My bad! Won't happen again.
Enstein was correct, light has a constant speed, you are getting older and slowing down.
Two billion years ago, the interstellar highway patrol were a lot more strict.
It's Bush's fault.
Try having your stepdaughter use a hair straightener and a hair dryer. I could rent my meter out as a centrifuge.
Oh crap! Now I'm going to have to readjust the warp drive on my Toyota.
There goes my holiday weekend.
Now they've done it. I have to go back and review all this Sommerfeld stuff...
And didn't Einstein originally just assume the speed of light as a constant?
Funny! I was thinking the same thing!
The speed of light and the color of light are related. If the speed of light has increased, would the old light from galaxies long ago and far away appear to be redshifted?