If the Speed of Light Can Change

The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

If the Speed of Light Can Change


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 reanalysis 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 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, 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, Australia. It was Flambaum, along with John Webb and colleagues, who first seriously challenged alpha's status as a constant in 1998.

Then, after exhaustively analyzing 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 10 to the fifth power in the past 12 billion years.

But then German researchers studying photons emitted by cesium and hydrogen atoms reported recently that they had seen no change in alpha to within a few parts in 10 to the fifteenth power over the period from 1999 to 2003--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 2 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 analyzed 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's 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 Laboratory (LANL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Now, Lamoreaux, along with LANL colleague Justin Torgerson, has reanalyzed 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 10 to the eighth power since Oklo was live (Physical Review D, vol. 69). 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. …

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