Space study opens up new opportunities to explore exotic energy

Posted by er134 at Jul 04, 2013 12:50 PM |
University of Leicester astronomer will present new work at RAS meeting

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 4 July 2013

Answering the ultimate question to Life, Universe and Everything? Not quite, but an international team of scientists have conducted research that opens up new possibilities for exploring what to date have only been theories of physics. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the astronomers have tested whether the strength of the electromagnetic force is altered in the strong gravitational field of a white dwarf star. Team member Professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester will present the new work at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews, Scotland.

In a Letter in the journal Physics Review, the team from the University of Leicester, University of Cambridge, University of Arizona and University of New South Wales highlight the potential impact of their research.

“The research opens up new possibilities for searching for exotic "scalar fields", forms of energy that often appear in theories of physics that seek to combine the Standard Model of particle physics with Einstein’s  general  theory of relativity,” said Professor Barstow.

The electromagnetic force is one of four fundamental forces that shape the universe. Its strength is given in the Standard Model by a pure number, with no units, known as the "fine-structure constant", denoted by the Greek letter alpha. Combining the speed of light, the electric charge of an electron, and Planck's constant, alpha has always been measured on earth to have the same value, approximately 1/137.

A key question is whether alpha changes in different parts of the Universe or in strong gravity fields. Recent observations of light from distant quasars (luminous sources thought to be caused by material heating up as it swirls around a black hole) hint that the fine-structure constant varies over the sky at large distances. But as yet there is no independent check for this result.

Some theories predict that alpha will vary in the presence of exotic scalar fields like those that are invoked to help unite the Standard Model with Einstein’s theory of general relativity that describes gravitation.

White dwarf stars, the compact remnants left behind when stars like the Sun reach the end of their lives are an ideal natural laboratory to test this idea. With a lot of matter packed into a sphere about the size of the Earth, they have strong gravitational fields.

By measuring the value of alpha near a white dwarf, and comparing it with its value here and now in the laboratory, astronomers can indirectly probe whether these alpha-changing scalar fields actually exist.

The team measured alpha for the first time the white dwarf star G191-B2B using iron and nickel ions (atoms where electrons are added or removed to give them a net electrical charge) trapped in the atmosphere of the white dwarf. Despite the strong gravitational field of the white dwarf - nearly 100,000 times that on Earth - the ions stay above the surface because they are continually pushed up by the strong radiation from the star.

The ions absorb some of the light from the white dwarf, making an "absorption spectrum" that was observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. That absorption spectrum allows the scientists to probe the value of alpha in the atmosphere of the white dwarf with high accuracy. By comparing the positions of the absorption lines measured by the telescope with the positions measured in the laboratory, they can tell whether alpha is different near the white dwarf.

Professor Barstow adds: “We found that any difference between the value of alpha on Earth and that measured in the strong gravitational field of the white dwarf must be smaller than a part in ten thousand, which means that any scalar fields must only weakly affect the electromagnetic force.

"Unfortunately, our work was limited by the need to use very old laboratory measurements from the 1970s. In the future, with better laboratory data to complement the high-precision astronomical data, we should be able to measure the change in alpha down to one part per million. At that level we would be able to place strong restrictions on whether alpha is a true constant of Nature.”


Science contacts

Prof. Martin Barstow (available from 5 July)
University of Leicester

Dr Julian Berengut
University of New South Wales

Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society

Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society

Ms Emma Shea
Head of Development Communications
University of St Andrews

Deborah Smith
UNSW Science media

Image and caption

A diagram that shows how absorption line spectra will change if the electromagnetic force is affected by gravity is available at Credit: Dr Julian Berengut, University of New South Wales.

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Further information

The research group consisted of Professor Martin Barstow (University of Leicester), Dr Julian Berengut, Professors Victor Flambaum and John Webb and Mr Andrew Ong from (all at University of New South Wales), Prof. John Barrow from the University of Cambridge and Prof. Jay Holberg of the University of Arizona.

Their work appears in “Limits on variations of the fine-structure constant with gravitational potential from white-dwarf spectra”, Physical Review Letters, J. C. Berengut, V. V. Flambaum, A. Ong, J. K. Webb, John D. Barrow, M. A. Barstow, S. P. Preval, J. B. Holberg, in press. A preprint of the paper can be seen at

Notes for editors

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the on-going programme to celebrate the University’s 600th anniversary.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS:, Twitter: @royalastrosoc), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC:, Twitter: @stfc_matters) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory.

Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews in 1410 and the University was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413. The University is now one of Europe’s most research intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK’s top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Times, The Guardian and the Sunday Times.

The University is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary and pursuing a £100 million fundraising campaign, launched by Patron and alumnus HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge, including £4 million to fund the creation of an ‘Other Worlds’ Think Tank and Observatory. The new think tank and Observatory project will extend the University of St Andrews’ flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

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