Dr Michael Murphy of Cambridge University, speaking at the Physics 2005 conference, has suggested that the fine structure constant, one of the cornerstones of physics, might not be constant after all. The fine structure constant, or alpha constant as it is often called, is a critical number which seems to be precisely tuned for life to exist. It 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. Most scientists believe that alpha today is the same as it always has been. But Murphy thinks this sacred number might be changing.
Other researchers have published results which suggest that alpha does not change but Murphy believes his 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 it 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,” said Murphy, “and the evidence, though strong, is not yet extraordinary enough.”