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Blog

What is your favourite physical constant?

By James Dacey

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A fascinating paper published in Physical Review Letters this week reports that one of the fundamental constants of our universe – the fine-structure constant (α) – may in fact vary depending on where you look in the heavens. The paper was actually available on the arXiv preprint server more than a year ago, and the implications of this bold claim were discussed at the time in a news article by physicsworld.com editor, Hamish Johnston. Along with other fundamental constants, the fine-structure constant determines the masses and binding energies of elementary particles, including dark matter – so it’s a big claim!

But in addition to the huge physical questions raised by this finding, it is also quite strange to think that such a familiar constant, 1/137, may not be so constant after all. Maybe I’m being a tad melodramatic about this, but I find it quite sad to think that this trusty constant, which was etched into my brain as an undergraduate, could somehow be subject to the whims of the universe just like the rest of us. But when it comes to holding an emotional attachment to the fundamental constants of physics, I somehow doubt that I am alone.

In this week’s poll we want to know: What is your favourite physical constant?
Planck’s constant
Gravitational constant
Boltzmann’s constant
Charge of the electron
Avagadro’s number
Speed of light in a vacuum

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page. And of course, there are plenty of other physical constants out there, so if your favourite does not appear on this list of big-hitters then please feel free to let us know in a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll, we considered another feature of the human side of science – the art of writing scientific papers. We asked whether you think that papers would be more informative if they were written in a first-person narrative where researchers told the “story” of their research as well as the scientific results. We had a lot of responses and opinion was fairly evenly divided with 56% of respondents replying “yes” and 44% replying “no”.

The question came about because last week the Royal Society opened up its entire historical journal archive to the public, which included Newton’s first published scientific paper. In the old text, Newton presents his New Theory of Light and Colors in a relaxed first-person narrative, which gives the readers an insight into the great physicist’s thought processes. Today’s scientific papers stand in stark contrast to this, being written largely in the third person about experiments that took place with no apparent human input.

One respondent who voted “yes” is Abhinav Deshpande, a physics student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. He commented: “Even though [the papers] wouldn’t necessarily be more informative, the story of how the discovery came about or how the key idea hit the author is an inspiring one for young, inexperienced readers like myself.”

But another student, Matthew O’Neil who is doing a degree in biochemistry at Keele University in the UK, has different ideas. He thinks that a first person narrative would make a paper less, not more, informative. “The idea of a scientific paper is to clearly and concisely inform the reader of methods, results, analysis and conclusions,” he commented.

Perhaps a third way has been found, however, by a respondent called Chi Ming Hung. He believes that, for clarity, the main body of a scientific paper should still be in the third person, but that it would be useful for authors to add a section about the “story” of the research, perhaps to the appendix. “This is useful in case somebody has similar ideas and need some inspiration and thus can benefit from the subjective train-of-thought behind the research.”

Thank you for all of your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again on the Physics World Facebook page.

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