The basic laws of nature may be changing as the universe ages, according toan international group of astrophysicists from United States, Australia andBritain. This could change our fundamental assumptions about the way theuniverse works.

Using the world’s largest telescope, the researchers, led by Dr. John K.Webb of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, studied the behavior ofmetallic atoms in gas clouds as far away from Earth as 12 billion lightyears. Their observations revealed patterns of light absorption that couldnot be explained without a change in a basic constant of nature involvingthe strength of the attraction between electrically charged particles. Thiswould mean that other laws of nature, such as the speed of light, may alsohave changed over the history of the cosmos.

Other scientists are expressing skepticism that the discovery will stand upunder further study, since the consequences for science would be so far-reaching and because the differences from the expected measurements are sosubtle. They plan to wait for independent evidence before deciding whetherthe finding is true. On the other hand, the finding would fit with some newtheories about the universe, such as the theory that previously unknowndimensions, such as parallel universes, may exist in space.

“It’s possible that there is a time evolution of the laws of physics,” saysDr. Webb. “If it’s correct, it’s the result of a lifetime.”

Rocky Kolb, an astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratorywho was not involved in the study, says the findings could cause revisionsin the science of how the universe began and later evolved, as well as giveevidence for the unproven theory of physics called string theory, whichpredicts that extra dimensions exist. He says, “The implication, if it istrue, would just be so enormous that it’s something people should look atand take seriously.”

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