Constants are never changing "special numbers."
They're everywhere in mathematics and science. The slightest tweaking of the couple dozen most important of them that regulate the very fabric and foundation of the cosmos would result in a drastically altered universe — erasing us along the way.
In the more practical realm, without knowledge of the hundreds of constants that make the modern world’s equations balance and machines run properly there wouldn’t be a modern world. Every important facet of physics, chemistry, and biology are defined by immutable mathematical constants.
One of the most well-known is the gravitational constant.
The force of gravity is found by multiplying the masses of the two attracting bodies, dividing by the square of the distance between them — and then multiplying the whole thing by a number that never changes, that can’t change, that is frozen everywhere forever.
Isaac Newton discovered it, and we call it "G."
It’s not a very big number: .0000000000667.
Without G — and the Planck Constant, Boltzmann Constant, as well as all the rest—civilization could certainly get along, but at the slow-paced technological level roughly equal to pre-Pharonic Egypt, since even surveyors and priests in the Nile Valley thousands of years ago had discovered a workable approximation of the most famous constant of them all: pi (3.141592653 . . . )
No equation ever written is more recognized than E=MC². The "C" in that term is also a constant that can’t change. It stands for the speed of light.
Our intrinsic view of reality changed forever with this seemingly simple and straighforward calculus. It declares that mass, energy, time, and distance all change, are actually transformed, so as to keep sacrosanct that measure which can never be altered —light speed.
The speed of light has been clocked more than a few times since Danish astronomer Ole Rømer was able to get an admirably close approximation (by mid-1600s standards) by cleverly observing the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter, phenomena transpiring far enough away (over half a billion miles) for the delay in apparent events to be noticed and calculated. It never varies.
Depending on Jupiter’s and Earth’s positions the light lag between the two planets is between 35 and 52 minutes.
That speed can’t change, never has changed, and never will change.
Or, perhaps not.
João Magueijo is a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London. He’s been working for years on a great enigma in science, the "Flatness Problem."
For such a confounding paradox it’s easy to explain this problem.
There can only be three results of the Big Bang.
It can either have burst forth with insufficient energy to prevent gravity from finally slowing everything down until the cosmos falls back into itself, exploded with too much force so as to send everything flying away into eternal oblivion — or, calling upon the most ridiculously improbable, trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent chance — it could be like it is, like our incomprehensible universe actually is.
This most astoundingly unacceptable of all coincidences has caused many great geniuses to crack their heads trying to solve the conundrum. Currently, the view enjoying the widest appeal over the last years is a theory postulated by another great physicist, Alan Guth, Victor Weisskopf Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Guth’s "inflationary universe" has the infant universe suddenly undergoing a duration of astoundingly explosive expansion, beginning and ending long before the first second of time ticked off.
João Magueijo, however, has put forward his own solution to the Flatness Problem that not only declines the inflationary theory but also strips away the inviolability of the speed of light.
According to Magueijo’s calculations, all that need be done is to imagine that the speed of light 14 billion years ago was far faster than now and that it has slowed over the vast eons between the Big Bang and present, and just as with Guth’s hypothesis, the problem is solved.
Alan Guth, João Magueijo or someone else may have all or part of this correct or incorrect.
Coming to the truth though may involve the discomforting readjustment for what "constant" means for entities who have the span of a few decades to observe a cosmos that is over fourteen billion years old.
Science has only known the gravitational constant, light speed, and other supposedly fixed ratios just for the last few centuries. Our civilization may be too young to be uttering grand pronouncements about what is or isn’t "constant."
To mayflies, born in summer and living no more than 24 hours, reality must seem like an unchanged and unchangeable fine and sunny day. They may not be the only creatures however whose fleeting lifespan is far too short to describe categorically everything that ever was or will be.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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