Sacred constant might be changing

April 10, 2005

Physical constants are one of the cornerstones of physics - sacred numbers which we know to be fixed - but what if some of these constants are changing? Speaking at the Institute of Physics conference Physics 2005, Dr Michael Murphy of Cambridge University will discuss the "fine structure constant" - one of the critical numbers in the universe which seems to be precisely tuned for life to exist - and suggest that it might not be constant after all.

Dr Murphy has used the largest optical telescope in the world, the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to study light from distant quasars. This light has been travelling across the universe for billions of years, and seems to show that the fine structure constant, often known as "alpha", may be varying over time.

The fine structure constant governs the electromagnetic force which holds all atoms and molecules together. Scientists have known for many years that if its value was slightly different, life could not exist. Only the very tiniest changes over time could be tolerated, and most scientists believe that alpha today is the same as it always has been.

The constant also affects the absorption fingerprint of atoms, which can be detected when light shines through gas clouds. Murphy has used quasars as incredibly distant light sources, whose light encounters gas clouds on its way to Earth. The light takes time to reach Earth, so he sees the fingerprints as they were billions of years ago. By comparing these fingerprints with those obtained in experiments on Earth, he concludes that alpha has changed by about one part in two-hundred-thousand during the last 10 billion years.

Other researchers have published results which suggest that alpha does not change. However Dr Murphy's work is the most detailed survey ever performed. He says that the internal checks in his method, which other research groups did not use, make this the most reliable measurement to date.

Murphy is careful not to claim that the case is closed, and he says that nobody can really say that alpha varies until another type of experiment has confirmed it. "We are claiming something extraordinary here," says Murphy, "and the evidence, though strong, is not yet extraordinary enough."

Dr Michael Murphy is a Research Associate at the Institute of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, and a Research Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge.
Contact Details: Dr Michael Murphy, Tel: 0122-333-7505, Email:

Michael Murphy's research website:

Dr Murphy is available for interviews: Contact David Reid, Institute of Physics, 44-207-470-4815 to arrange an interview.

Notes to editors:

Physics 2005 takes place at the University of Warwick from 10th - 14th April 2005. It is the main academic conference for the UK physics community during Einstein Year and the largest gathering of physicists in the UK. At the meeting scientists will present exciting new research from emerging fields in physics.

For more information see:


Institute of Physics Press Office
Tel: 44-207-470-4815

Physics 2005 Newsroom
Tel: 024-7657-2982 or 0247-657-2983

The Newsroom will be staffed from Sunday 10th 2pm - 5pm and daily from 8.30am until Thursday 14th April.

Physics 2005 Newsroom Team David Reid, Mobile: 44-794-632-1473, E-mail:
Alex Seeley, Mobile: 44-796-732-6646, E-mail:

Einstein Year is a year-long celebration of physics and its relevance to all our lives. Marking the centenary of Einstein's three ground-breaking ideas it communicates the vital role physics plays in developing new technologies such as cancer screening equipment and mobile phones, whilst addressing big questions like how the Universe was created and how climate change can be addressed. Einstein Year will inspire and inform the next generation of physicists as well as those who are just curious about the world around them. Einstein Year is the UK and Ireland's contribution to International Year of Physics, a UN-sponsored project to promote physics in 2005.

Einstein Year is here - be inspired by physics in 2005.

IOP Publishing

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