It looks like the fine structure constant ain't so constant. The fine structure constant is a pure number of about 1/137 that was thought to be a fundamental constant. It's the ratio between the energy needed to overcome electrostatic repulsion between two electrons a distance d apart and the energy of a photon of wavelength 2 pi d. Chemistry is all about the energies involving electrons and light, so the fine structure constant pops up a lot in quite a few fields. The fine structure constant depends on the charge of the electron, the speed of light in a vacuum and Plank's constant, so as long as all these are in fact constant, their ratio will be a universal.
This past Hallowe'en, however, Physical Review Letters published a highly-confirmed yet still extremely controversial paper showing that in old galaxies, the fine structure constant is higher in older galaxies. There are only three possible causes; one of them must be true:
- The charge on the electron is larger in older galaxies
- The speed of light is smaller in older galaxies
- Plank's constant is smaller in older galaxies.
These thoughts are still just tantalizing ideas, and there probably isn't a connection. Drop me a line if you have ideas about this!