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Possible variations of the fine structure constant α and their metrological significance

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2006 Metrologia 43 R1


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Metrologia 43 (2006) R1–R9 doi:10.1088/0026-1394/43/5/R01


Possible variations of the fine structure

constant α and their metrological
K A Bronnikov and S A Kononogov
VNIIMS, 46 Ozyornaya St., Moscow 119361, Russia

Received 6 January 2005

Published 12 September 2006
Online at stacks.iop.org/Met/43/R1

We briefly review the recent experimental results on possible variations of
the fine structure constant α on the cosmological time scale and its position
dependence. We outline the theoretical grounds for the assumption that α
might be variable, mention some phenomenological models incorporating a
variable α into the context of modern cosmology and discuss the
significance of possible α variations for theoretical and practical metrology.

1. Introduction called internal) space-time dimensions. At present, there is

no well-established way of transition from multidimensional
The idea that fundamental physical constants (FPCs), physics to the conventional four-dimensional picture. It is,
including the Planck constant, the speed of light, stable particle however, clear that such a transition requires some procedures
masses and the coupling constants of the basic interactions (such as dimensional reduction and compactification) which
(above all, Newton’s gravitational constant G and the fine connect the four-dimensional effective constants with true
structure constant α), may be variable was put forward for the multidimensional constants and the characteristics of extra
first time by Dirac in 1937, soon after the advent of Friedmann’s dimensions. Thus, their size may suffer a non-trivial evolution
expanding universe models (1922) and their confirmation by in time and may depend on the position in external space.
Hubble (1929). In the subsequent decades, the possible As to observational data on FPC variation, there have
variability of FPCs in the course of cosmological evolution been very few positive results until recent years. Thus, some
as well as their dependence on position in space, on the researchers pointed toward a possible G variability according
magnitude of physical fields or on spatial and energy scales to astronomical observations, but, to our knowledge, neither
occupied quite a prominent place in theoretical physics and of these results was confirmed afterwards (see [10] for detail).
cosmology, including many works of the VNIIMS theoretical However, the very end of the 20th century was marked by the
group [1–11] and others. In addition to the above-mentioned advent of observational evidence [15] on the variability of the
FPCs, there appeared other ‘candidate variables’ such as, for electromagnetic coupling constant, the fine structure constant
instance, the cosmological constant and the coupling constants
of the weak and strong interactions. The basic motivation α = e2 /(h̄c) (Gaussian units), or
for such studies has been, and remains, the idea of unity of α = e2 /(4π ε0 h̄c) (SI units),
physical interactions. If the conjectured unified interaction
splits in different physical conditions into specific interactions where e is the electron charge, c is the speed of light in
known from experiment, the FPCs that characterize these vacuum and ε0 is the permittivity of free space. This and
interactions should depend on the circumstances of their subsequent works have made the subject of FPC variability,
manifestation, above all, on the spatial and energy scales and on and above all the variability of α, highly topical. This subject
the fundamental field intensities (a recent detailed discussion is no longer regarded as purely theoretical, and nowadays it is
may be found in [10]). rapidly increasing its experimental basis.
Thus, it is quite common to believe that unification of The electromagnetic interaction, whose intensity is
all physical interactions requires a number of additional (so- characterized by the constant α, is of primary importance for

0026-1394/06/050001+09$30.00 © 2006 BIPM and IOP Publishing Ltd Printed in the UK R1

Review Article

the macroscopic structure of matter and in an overwhelming of them constraining this variation by a few units times 10−11 ;
majority of observed phenomena. It is for this reason the best estimate was
that a possible variability of α would lead to variability of
the majority of existing references of physical quantities, |α̇/α|  1.1 × 10−11 yr −1 .
including such basic references as those of length, mass and
time/frequency. Other early results on the stability of α and e are described
The constant α, whose CODATA-recommended value is in Petley’s book [17].
The recent estimates of possible α variations have
α = 7.297 362 533(27) × 10−3 ≈ 1/137.035 99 diminished the uncertainties by 4 to 5 orders of magnitude as
compared with [11] due to a considerably increased stability
(the figures in parentheses mean the uncertainty in the of frequency standards. Thus, according to [18], a comparison
last two meaningful digits), is one of the most precisely of hyperfine transition frequencies in 87 Rb and 133 Cs over a
measured FPCs: the relative uncertainty is about 3.7 × 10−9 . period of about four years has shown that
Moreover, its dimensionless nature makes it independent of
any conventions or systems of physical units. d ln(νRb /νCs )/dt = (0.2 ± 7.0) × 10−16 yr −1
In what follows, we will briefly describe the basic
experimental and observational data on the possible α at 1σ . Neglecting possible changes in the weak and
variability and outline the main characteristics of theoretical strong interaction constants and thus in the nuclear magnetic
models which, to some extent, conform to the observations. In moments, this leads to
the last section, we formulate some conclusions and discuss the
significance of this research area for theoretical and practical α̇/α = (−0.4 ± 16) × 10−16 yr −1 , (2)
where α̇ = dα/dt. Another experiment [19] compared an
electric quadrupole transition in 199 Hg+ to the ground-state
2. Empirical data on α variability hyperfine splitting of 133 Cs over three years, showing that

A great number of relevant observations and experiments are |d ln(νHg /νCs )/dt| < 7.0 × 10−15 yr −1
described and discussed in the comprehensive review [12] and
in the shorter papers [13, 14]. In this section, we mention and leading to
only some of the data presented there, seeming to be the most
convincing, and add some estimates and inferences of the last |α̇/α| < 1.2 × 10−15 yr −1 (3)
two years.
under the assumption that the gyromagnetic factor gCs and
me /mp are invariable.
2.1. Laboratory data
Reference [20] reported a comparison of the absolute
The laboratory bounds on α variability are obtained by 1S–2S transition in atomic hydrogen to the ground state of
comparing the long-term behaviour of oscillators with caesium, which, combined with the results of [11, 19], yielded
frequencies depending on α in different ways. In practice, the constraint
such a comparison leads to experimental bounds on certain
combinations of FPCs. α̇/α = (−0.9 ± 2.9) × 10−16 yr −1 . (4)
To our knowledge, the first comparisons of this kind
A comparison [21] of optical transitions in 171 Yb+
were performed in 1974–76 by two groups independently.
with a caesium standard for 2.8 years has shown that
Turneaure and Stein [16], at Stanford University, used
d ln(νYb /νCs )/dt = (−1.2 ± 4.4) × 10−15 yr −1 , which leads to
superconducting microwave cavities with a quality factor of
about 4 × 1010 and a resonant frequency ∼8.6 GHz. The α̇/α = (−0.3 ± 2.0) × 10−15 yr −1 . (5)
frequencies of cavity-controlled oscillators were compared
over a period of 12 days with a caesium-beam atomic clock, The laboratory measurements thus lead to results which,
and the relative drift was (−0.4 ± 3.4) × 10−14 /day. This led following from [20], may be combined to yield very hard
to the conclusion [16] that a possible annual variation of the constraints for separate basic constants including α. The above
product estimates show that the allowed variations of α in the modern
gp · (me /M) · α epoch are bounded to a few units of 10−16 per year.
Further progress in the near future is expected on the basis
was less than 4.1 × 10−12 , where gp is the proton gyromagnetic of improved frequency standards as well as the development of
ratio, me is the electron mass and M is the Cs nuclear mass. new methods of atomic experiments. One such method [22] is
Kolosnitsyn et al [11], at VNIIFTRI, the Russian based on the crossing of atomic levels in two-electron highly
time–frequency standard keeper, compared the behaviour of charged ions of different atomic numbers Z. It is claimed that
molecular clocks operating with ammonia molecular beams the effect of possible variation of α becomes strongly enhanced
and a group of caesium frequency standards. The caesium (by a factor of about 1000) when studied near such crossing
standard formed a scale for measuring the frequency of the points. Another method [23] is to use atomic transitions
ammonia generators. The results of the measurements for six between narrow lines that have an enhanced sensitivity to a
years (1964–1969) led to a number of estimates for α̇/α, all possible variation of α. The authors present a number of such

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transitions and claim that their method effectively suppresses interaction forces [28]. A detailed analysis has shown [29]
the systematic sources of uncertainty that are unavoidable in that, assuming that Er varied only due to an α dependence of
conventional high-resolution spectroscopic measurements. the electromagnetic energy, the following constraint is valid:
An improvement of at least an order of magnitude in
current α̇ estimates can be achieved in space experiments α/α = (0.15 ± 1.05) × 10−7 (6)
planned for 2008–2009 within the PHARAO/ACES Project
at 2σ level. The accuracy of the method is explained
of the European Space Agency [24, 25]. PHARAO, the
by the tiny value of the resonant energy Er ∼ 0.1 eV
‘Projet d’Horloge Atomique par Refroidissement d’Atomes
compared with its sensitivity to a variation of α, dEr /d ln α ∼
en Orbite’, which started in 1993, combines laser cooling
−1 MeV, so that the expected variations are smaller than
techniques and a microgravity environment in a satellite orbit,
0.1 eV/1 MeV ∼ 10−7 .
allowing the development of space clocks with unprecedented
It was later noticed [30] that two ranges of variations could
performance. Its declared objectives are, among others [24],
be compatible with the Oklo data:
(i) to achieve time and frequency transfer with stability better
than 10−16 and (ii) to perform fundamental physics tests. Its α/α = (−0.8 ± 1.0) × 10−8 ,
detailed description can be found in [25]. (7)
One can also mention quite a different type of α α/α = (8.8 ± 0.7) × 10−8 ,
variability predicted by the electroweak theory, which concerns
but the second range is hardly compatible with the isotopic
strengthening of the electromagnetic coupling with increasing
ratio of gadolinium. Note that the first range, assuming that
momentum transfer Q2 in particle interactions at energies
the time variations of α (if any) occur uniformly, translates to
approaching the electroweak unification energy [26, 27]. This
the variation rate
effect has been confirmed experimentally [26] by analysing
the processes e+ e− → µ+ µ− and e+ e− → e+ e− µ+ µ− α̇/α = (−0.4 + 0.5) × 10−17 yr −1 , (8)
at the TRISTAN e+ e− collider at KEK (Japan). The data
were accumulated at an average centre-of-mass energy of which is apparently the tightest of the existing constraints.
57.77 GeV, and α was measured to change from its known Some estimates have recently been obtained under the
value of α −1 ≈ 137.0 at Q2 = 0 to additional assumption that the low energy neutron spectrum is
α −1 = 128.5 ± 1.8 (stat) ± 0.7 (syst) well described by a Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution [31–33].
Taking into account the possible variation of the strange
at Q2 = (57.77 GeV/c)2 . quark mass ms along with the assumption that all fundamental
The latter variation is physically interpreted as a result of couplings vary independently led [33] to the allowed variation
quantum vacuum properties (see, e.g., [27] and references α/α < (1–5) × 10−10 , even more stringent than above.
therein) and manifests itself at energies much higher than Another result [34], free of poorly grounded assumptions,
those relevant to atomic spectra. It has therefore nothing to seems more realistic:
do with temporal and spatial variations of α at astrophysical
α/α = (4.5 + 1) × 10−8 ,
and cosmological scales. (9)
α̇/α = (2.25 + 0.5) × 10−17 yr −1 .
2.2. Geochemical data
The most recent α̇ estimates from the Oklo phenomenon
Very hard constraints on variations of α have been obtained [35] have been made on the basis of modern methods of reactor
from studies of the so-called Oklo phenomenon combined with physics, a detailed computer model of zone RZ2 of the Oklo
data on the lifetimes of long-lived radioactive isotopes. reactor and full-scale calculations using two different Monte
The Oklo phenomenon is a natural nuclear reactor Carlo codes: the Russian code MCU REA and the worldwide
that operated for about 200 000 years approximately two known code MCNP (USA). Both codes have produced close
billion years ago, which, regarding cosmological observations, results. It was claimed that many details of these calculations
corresponds to redshifts around z ∼ 0.14. The products of its differed from the previous work (e.g. the averaged cross-
operation were discovered in 1972 at Oklo uranium mine in section of Sm and its dependence on the shift of resonance
Gabon, West Africa. The isotopic abundance of the yields position due to variation of fundamental constants). Still
bears information on the nuclear reaction rates at that time, no evidence for α variations was found, with the resulting
which in turn depended on the current values of α. One of constraint
the key quantities measured is the ratio 149 147
62 Sm/62 Sm of two
light isotopes of samarium which are not fission products. This − 4 × 10−17 yr −1 < (dα/dt)/α < 3 × 10−17 yr −1 .
ratio is of the order of 0.9 in normal samarium, but is about
0.02 in Oklo ores. Such a low value is explained by depletion A further improvement in the accuracy of these limits is
of 149 promised.
62 Sm by thermal neutrons to which it was exposed while
the reactor was active. The capture cross section of a thermal Some conclusions have also been drawn by analysing the
neutron by 149 Sm, i.e. the reaction radioactive decay of nuclides with known α dependence of the
decay rate. The best constraint was obtained from beta decay
Sm + n → 150
Sm + γ of rhenium into osmium with electron emission: as noted by
Peebles and Dicke [36], an extremely low value of the decay
has a resonant energy Er  0.0973 eV, which is a consequence energy, about 2.5 keV, makes it very sensitive to α variations.
of a near cancellation between electromagnetic and strong Still the constraints obtained are much weaker than (8) or (9).

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Laboratory studies of meteorites have led to the result [37] of a wide distribution of the target absorption systems over the
α/α = (8 ± 16) × 10−7 (10) An alternative method is to study emission rather than
absorption spectra. There are very few such estimates since this
for the last 4.5 billion years, which corresponds to z  method, being sufficiently simple and direct, is less sensitive
0.45. Translation to the rate of change (again assuming its and is harder to apply to sources with large redshifts. Recent
uniformity) gives approximately measurements of strong emission lines of O III in a sample of
165 quasars have led to the result [45]
α̇/α = (2 ± 4) × 10−16 yr −1 . (11)
α/α = (1.2 ± 0.7) × 10−4 , z = 0.16–0.8. (17)
A shortcoming of this method is its indirect nature: the
Re/Os ratio is measured in iron meteorites whose age is not Essential improvements in emission line measurements and
determined directly. Besides, the constraint (10) only concerns analysis are anticipated in the near future [46], partly owing
the mean value of α for 4.5 billion years rather than its to the use of many-multiplet methods already employed in the
instantaneous variation rate. absorption spectra analysis.
The estimate (17) as well as tentative estimates of the
2.3. Astrophysical data Cambridge group (England) [47] point to higher values of α
in the past whereas the results related to absorption lines give
The first and not very confident observational indication on
preference to smaller α in the past. It appears tempting to
a possible variability of α has appeared from studies of
conclude that this apparent discrepancy may be explained by
remote quasars. The observed quasar absorption spectra were
some unidentified systematic errors. Arguments in favour of
compared with the corresponding laboratory spectra. The
this viewpoint have been put forward by Bandeira and Corbelli
details of the method are described in [15, 38–41] and others.
[52], who found that at least the absorption line analysis
One of the recent results [39] has been obtained by
could be subject to systematic effects, related to estimation
analysing the lines of Si IV in 15 systems and improves the
of different sets of atomic transitions at different redshifts, and
previous estimates by a factor of three:
these hidden correlations thus could mimic a variable α.
α/α = (0.15 ± 0.43) × 10−16 , 1.59  z  2.92. Another, ‘optimistic’ viewpoint is, however, possible [47],
(12) that this is simply an indication of spatial variations of α since
the emission and absorption methods are sensitive to the values
This result does not confirm α variations. of α in drastically different environments.
The many-multiplet method of Webb et al [15,40] rests on One can conclude that the present astrophysical data on α
a comparison of a few lines in different samples of sources: one variation are rather contradictory and need further verification
compares the shifts of lines which are sensitive and insensitive and improvement.
to α variations. A recent result [20] obtained from a study of
128 systems in the range 0.5 < z < 3 indicates lower values
of α in the past: 2.4. Cosmological data

α/α = (−0.54 ± 0.12) × 10−5 , 0.5  z  3, (13) The observed anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background
(CMB) and the abundance of light elements formed in
thus confirming the previous conclusions [15,40]. The authors primordial nucleosynthesis (PNS) constrain the variations of α
did not find systematic errors. on the cosmological scale at the level 10−2 . These constraints
There are, however, results directly opposite to these. concern much greater redshifts z than any others: z ∼ 1000
Thus, according to [42], for CMB and z ∼ 1010 for PNS.
Variations of α change the Thomson scattering cross-
α/α = (−0.1 ± 1.7) × 10−6 , z = 1.15 (14)
section and hence the transparency of the medium and finally
(from an analysis of absorption lines of iron of a single quasar). the recombination time.
Similar results have been found for a system of absorption lines A recent analysis of the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave
of the quasar Q1101–264 [43] with the redshift z = 1.839: Anisotropy Probe) data on CMB anisotropy has led to the
result [53]
α/α = (2.4 ± 3.8) × 10−6 , z = 1.839. (15)
α/α = (−1.5 ± 3.5) × 10−2 , (18)
A unified sample of Fe II lines gave α/α = (−0.4 ± 1.5) ×
10−6 for two systems with z = 1.15 and 1.839. for z ∼ 103 . It is, however, well known that a similar
The use of radio and millimetre quasar absorption effect on CMB anisotropy could be due to variations of the
spectra gave an independent estimate (unfortunately, for gravitational constant [54]. Besides, consistent constraints
comparatively small redshifts only) on α variations of the order of 1% could only be obtained
from CMB analysis combined with independent data on the
|α/α| < 8.5 × 10−6 , z = 0.25–0.68. (16) cosmological parameters characterizing the expansion of the
universe at times close to the recombination epoch.
As noted by Barrow [44], the same quasar absorption Barrow [44] used the observed CMB isotropy at large
spectra analysis leads to an upper bound on spatial variations of angular scales to derive strong observational limits on any
α such as |α|/α < 3 × 10−6 at 3 Gpc distance scale because possible large-scale spatial variation in the values of α

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and other FPC (the electron to proton mass ratio and the only weakly coupled to gravity and has a negligible effect on
Newtonian gravitational constant) assuming that their space- the background space-time geometry; a local inhomogeneity
time evolution is driven by a scalar field. The constraints was characterized by the Tolman–Bondi class of spherically
are strongly model-dependent. Thus, large-scale spatial symmetric metrics describing the evolution of a dust cloud in
fluctuations of α are bounded by 2 × 10−9 in the BSBM theory the presence of a cosmological constant. It was concluded that
(see below) and by 1.2 × 10−8 in the varying speed of light local virialization does not stabilize the value of the dilaton
theories. These derived bounds are significantly stronger than and protect it from any global cosmological variation. This
any others obtainable by direct observations of astrophysical indicates that local terrestrial and solar-system experiments
objects. It should be noted, however, that these bounds concern really measure the effects of varying ‘constants’ of Nature
variations between mutually remote regions of space with occurring on cosmological scales to computable precision [48].
approximately equal physical conditions and do not apply to Somewhat different results have been obtained by Mota
the possible discrepancy between the results of emission and and Barrow [49,50]. They studied the space and time evolution
absorption spectra of quasars (see the end of the previous of α using the BSBM varying-α theory (see section 3.1) and a
section): in the latter case, the emitters and absorbers are spherical collapse model for cosmological structure formation,
apparently characterized by drastically different gravitational considered as a perturbation to a homogeneous and isotropic
fields, matter densities and temperatures. cosmological background. Different assumptions were used
The PNS theory predicts light element formation in the on the dark energy equation of state and on the coupling of α
early universe, and their resulting abundances depend on a to the matter fields. It was found that, independently of the
delicate balance between the expansion of the universe and the model of structure formation one considers, there is always a
weak interaction strength, which in turn determines the proton difference between the values of α in a virialized overdensity
to neutron number ratio at the beginning of PNS. Ultimately, and in the background. In some models, especially at low
the predicted light element abundances depend on a number of redshifts, the difference depends on the time when virialization
fundamental constants, α being only one of them. has occurred and the equation of state of the dark energy. At
A recent study incorporating seven parameters [55] has low redshifts, when the dark energy starts to dominate the
yielded cosmological expansion, the difference between α in a cluster
and in the background grows.
α/α = (6 ± 4) × 10−4 , z ∼ 1010 . (19) According to these studies, it may happen that α and α̇
vary from galaxy to galaxy even at the same redshift, but the
A considerable improvement of the above estimates
evolution of α is the same in different sub-galactic stellar
is expected with the appearance and analysis of new
systems belonging to a single galaxy, or even in galaxies
observational data from the WMAP and Planck Surveyor
belonging to the same galaxy cluster [51]. It is, however, clear
that the problem should be studied more thoroughly in a wider
According to [47], the CMB and PNS analysis on the
range of models.
whole favours slightly smaller values of α in the past compared
More generally, one can conclude that the whole set of
with its modern value. The absence of variations also remains
modern experimental and observational data leads to very
admissible at the level of 2σ .
stringent limits of putative α variations but leaves open the
The bounds (18) and (19) cannot be directly translated into
question of their real existence. Even more uncertainty follows
estimates of the admissible current values of α̇ since, to do so,
from the possible difference between local and global α
one has to assume a certain dependence α(t) which is different
variations and its model dependence.
not only in different theories, but even in specific models of a
given theory; see examples in section 3.
3. Theoretical models that predict varying α
2.5. Comparing data of different origin
Despite the weak experimental status of varying α, there have
The above discussion of possible FPC variability combined been a great number of theoretical studies in the recent years,
observational evidence from quasar spectra with solar system treating α as a function of certain physical fields which, in
data and laboratory constraints. Most of the studies implicitly general, change from point to point in four-dimensional space-
assume that local and cosmological observations are directly time.
comparable. This is, however, a strong assumption which may It should be noted that the researchers themselves stress
prove to be wrong. If a given FPC, say α, depends on a scalar the tentative nature of such constructions. Thus, according
field φ, a slowly varying cosmological background of φ may to [47], ‘any model compatible with all empirical data at a
substantially differ from its local values in a specific galaxy, given time, is certainly wrong since at any time some of the
stellar cluster or another gravitationally bound object. One can current data are erroneous’. It is therefore useless to build
freely imagine, for instance, that the Oklo data only reflect the artificial models with a large number of free parameters: it is
value of a stationary galactic scalar field whereas the quasar highly probable that such a model will be incompatible with
data feel cosmological effects. the newest data as soon as its description is published.
Shaw and Barrow [48] have found that this is probably In studies dealing with multidimensional theories, such
not the case, and local variations of the ‘constants’ are able to as Kaluza–Klein theories and different versions of string
track their global variations. A construction involving matched theory (regarded at present as the most promising unification
asymptotic expansions within a sufficiently wide scalar field theories), the dimensionless constants of four-dimensional
model is analysed assuming that the scalar (dilaton) field is physics are shown to be dynamical quantities [56, 57].

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However, the specific form of such dynamics depends not only where m, γ , k are constants (approximately of order unity in
on the version of the Kaluza–Klein or string theory but also on the Planck system of units).
the compactification scheme and the form of dilatonic coupling Considering Jordan’s picture as a physical one, the author
adopted within the chosen version of the theory. studies the modification of standard quantum electrodynamics
Accordingly, at the present stage, comparatively simple in this theory caused by the scalar fields and concludes that
and natural phenomenological models are preferable, which, the effective electric charges are σ -dependent. The time
on the one hand, should conform to the idea of unity of dependence of σ itself is affected by the φ field, which leads
all physical interactions and, on the other, should be able to decaying oscillations of σ in the modern epoch.
not only to predict the variability of α but also to suggest A cosmological model built in the framework of this
solutions to other problems of modern cosmology, such as the theory predicts comparatively rapid changes of α in the epoch
cosmological constant problem and the dark matter and dark corresponding to z > 1 (but close enough to 1) and much
energy problems. We will briefly outline two such models and slower changes in the modern epoch. This allows one to
mention some other approaches. reconcile the strong bounds related to the Oklo phenomenon
and the conclusions [15, 40] on a rather rapid growth of α in
3.1. Bekenstein–Sandvik–Barrow–Magueijo (BSBM) theories the previous epoch. The field σ is also able to play the role of
the so-called quintessence explaining the acceleration of the
This class of theories [58, 59] assumes constant values of the universe observed in modern cosmology.
speed of light and Planck’s constant; accordingly, a variability Other predictions of Fujii’s theory are the existence of
of α is achieved due to variability of the electron charge e a non-Newtonian short-range component of gravity and a
or the permittivity of vacuum. Thus instead of e = const violation of the weak equivalence principle. The orders
one assumes e = e0 ε(x), where e0 = const while ε is of magnitude of both effects are compatible with modern
a dimensionless scalar field depending on the space-time experimental constraints.
coordinates. Such theories preserve the usual properties of
local gauge and Lorentz invariance and causality. In these
theories, the conventional expression for the electromagnetic 3.3. Other models
field tensor in terms of the 4-potential Aµ is replaced by We have briefly described two sufficiently well-known and
elaborated phenomenological theories. Let us also mention
Fµν = (1/ε)[(εAν ),µ − (εAµ ),ν ], (20) some alternative approaches.
Anchordoqui and Goldberg [61] discussed the so-called
which takes its usual form if ε = const. The electromagnetic
quintessence, i.e. a minimally coupled scalar field playing the
field action has its usual form while the scalar field dynamics is
role of an ‘accelerator’ of the expansion of the universe, as a
described by the usual kinetic term in the Lagrangian (written
possible generator of α variability. They considered scalar field
in the form ε,µ ε ,µ /ε 2 ). The theories of this class differ from
one another in assumptions on how the ε field is coupled to the potentials combining a number of exponential functions with
rest of matter. different coefficients. Like Fujii’s theory, this model makes it
The cosmological models obtained in these theories possible to reconcile the tough constraints obtained from the
predict time variations of α (e.g. ∼ ln t in the matter-dominated Oklo reactor with the results of Webb et al obtained from quasar
phase in a spatially flat cosmology) and spatial variations of absorption spectra: they become compatible due to slowing
α whose nature and evolution depend on the dark energy down of the scalar field evolution in approaching the present
equation of state and the coupling of α to the matter fields epoch.
[49, 50]. Inclusion of the effects of inhomogeneity, so that the Damour and Polyakov [62] suggest a more general
dependence α(t) differs in the cosmological background and in approach: among the models of the universe containing
virialized overdensities, may naturally lead to no observable ordinary matter and a real scalar field, one singles out
local time variations of α on Earth and in our Galaxy even a class of low-energy models possessing invariance under
though such variations can be significant on quasar scales. diffeomorphisms and gauge transformations. The resulting
theories have a Born–Infeld type Lagrangian structure. In such
theories, the masses and g-factors of fermions, as well as their
3.2. Fujii’s scalar–tensor theory
electromagnetic coupling constants, are scalar field dependent,
The theory suggested by Fujii [60] contains, in addition to the whereas their electric charges and gravitational coupling may
metric tensor, two scalar fields. One of them (σ ) is a dilatonic remain constant. One then analyses the effect of all variable
Brans–Dicke type field with the potential V (σ ) = e−4ζ σ factors on the observed atomic spectra. The latter, as follows
(in the Einstein conformal frame, or picture), where is from [62], bear information on the possible variability of α as
a constant playing the role of a cosmological constant in well as the g-factors and particle mass ratios, and, moreover,
the Jordan picture; ζ is the so-called non-minimal coupling all predictions concerning the atomic spectra turn out to be
constant characterizing a coupling between the σ field and conformal gauge independent.
the metric in the Jordan picture. Another scalar field φ has a Bertolami et al [63], among others, stress the effective
conventional kinetic term and interacts with σ in such a way Lorentz and CPT symmetry violation that accompanies
that their common potential in Einstein’s picture has the form variable fundamental constants in any theory where these
  constants are scalar field dependent since variable scalar fields
−4ζ σ 1 2 2 inevitably create preferred space-time directions. As an
V (φ, σ ) = e + m φ (1 + γ sin(kσ )) , (21)
2 example of such a theory, they analyse N = 4 supergravity

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in four dimensions, containing two scalar fields, and show them. Thus it is more surprising that so much effort is needed to
that some of its solutions lead to α(t) dependence compatible discover their variability than the belief that they are variable.
with the astrophysical data, though at the expense of some Meanwhile, the experimental confirmations of these ideas are
fine-tuning. In another paper [64], Bento et al considered a at present very poor and unreliable. This certainly concerns
cosmological model with a two-field quintessence, i.e. a set of all FPCs, not only α.
two scalar fields φ and ψ, minimally coupled to the Einstein An important and natural feature of all models is the
gravity and possessing the potential interrelation of the predicted variations of different FPCs.
Therefore, in both planning and interpretation of future
V (φ, ψ) = e−λψ P (φ, ψ), (22) experiments, such interrelations should be taken into account.
Thus, in the context of string theories, it turns out [62] that
where P (φ, ψ) is a third-order polynomial depending on both the quantum chromodynamics constant QCD and the weak
fields, while the electromagnetic field Lagrangian had the form interaction constant v are ‘even more variable’ than α [14]:
1  QCD / QCD ∼ 30α/α, v/v ∼ 80α/α. (26)
Le−m = B(φ, ψ)F µν Fµν , (23)
4 According to [71], any theoretical model, predicting
B(φ, ψ) being a linear function of both scalars. It was found cosmological variations of α over 10−6 due to changes of
that some solutions for this system describe a cosmology with some long-range scalar field, also predicts violations of the
weak equivalence principle (WEP) over 10−13 . To discover
a transient late period of accelerated expansion, making it
such variations, it is only necessary to gain one order
possible to fit the data arising from quasar absorption spectra
of magnitude as compared with the modern experimental
and comply with the bounds on the variation of α from the
constraints. This endows special significance to the space
Oklo reactor, meteorite analysis, atomic clock measurements,
experiments for testing the WEP planned for the next few
CMB radiation and big bang nucleosynthesis.
years: MICROSCOPE (planned sensitivity 10−15 ), STEP (up
Kirillov (see [65] and references therein) suggested a
to 10−18 [72]) and others.
modified field theory which is aimed at explaining all effects
Thus new space experiments and observations in the
ascribed to dark matter and dark energy without explicitly
area of gravitation, cosmology and astrophysics (improved
introducing them. A phenomenological manifestation of this
satellite observations of the microwave background, analysis
theory may be expressed as a modification of the law of gravity,
of supernovae and quasar radiation, space experiments for
such that, for a point source of mass M0 , the gravitational
testing the WEP and constancy of the gravitational constant
potential reads
G, laboratory tests of FPC stability etc) are expected to bring
GM0 new results of major significance for the whole physical picture
φ=− [1 + f (r)], (24) of the world. The discovery of a dynamical nature of a number
of FPCs, as well as revision of the level of fundamentality for
where the function f (r) may be chosen in the form many of them, will inevitably lead to a corresponding revision
 in the foundations of theoretical metrology. Following the
(r/r0 ) ln(rmax e/r), r  rmax , change in the general theoretical paradigm, the set of FPCs
f (r) = (25)
rmax /r0 , r > rmax ; will also be revised: parameters whose dynamical nature is
proved will lose their fundamental status, giving way to the
the parameter r0 , being of the order of 1–5 kpc, is different for basic constants of an underlying unified theory.
different galaxies while rmax only depends on cosmological If α does vary, a question of great interest for both physics
time and is now of the order of 100 Mpc. At r > rmax , and metrology is: which of the quantities in the definition (1) of
Newton’s law is restored but with an effective mass Mmax = α, namely, c, h̄, e or ε0 , is really varying. Different viewpoints
M0 (1 + rmax /r0 ). It is shown that such a modification is able to may be found in the literature.
account for all dark matter effects observed and, in particular, to The theories mentioned in section 3 modify the Maxwell
explain the whole variety of ‘dark matter halos’ in astrophysical equations and actually introduce a scalar field dependence of
systems. It is also shown that, in the modified theory, the the effective electronic charge e. On the other hand, Hehl and
galaxy formation process leads to an effective equation of Obukhov [67] note that, since e and h, as the units of charge and
state of the fictitious ‘dark matter’ with w < −1/3 (w being action, are invariants (4D scalars), to reconcile a variable α with
the ratio of pressure to energy density) and therefore it can the invariable (premetric) form of the Maxwell equations one
play the role of dark energy. The standard picture of the early may choose the speed of light c to vary. For variable c theories
universe is preserved, but the theory predicts variation of all see, e.g., [68], the brief review [69] and references therein.
interaction constants (including G and α) with the same time Though, as noted by Alfonso-Faus [70], such first principles as
dependence [66]. local Lorentz invariance and local position invariance disfavour
variations of c as compared with changes of e as a reason for
4. Concluding remarks. Physical and metrological varying α.
significance of FPC variations Hehl and Obukhov [67] mention one more possibility:
they represent α as
General theoretical considerations related to the necessary α = e2 0 /(4πh̄) = 0 /(2RK ), (27)
unification of all interactions and the requirement of unity of
the physical science lead, probably inevitably, to the idea of a where 0 is the impedance of free space and RK is the
dynamical nature of all known FPCs or at least a majority of von Klitzing constant (quantum Hall resistance). In these

Metrologia, 43 (2006) R1–R9 R7

Review Article

expressions, the speed of light c has disappeared. If, again, e interpretation. On the other hand, since this connection appears
and h̄ are regarded as true constants, the putative α variability to be model-dependent [48–50], spatial variations of FPCs
should be attributed to the vacuum impedance 0 that becomes deserve special attention due to their potential use for model
a dynamic (dilaton) field. selection in physics and cosmology.
Tobar [27] represented α in terms of the ratio of the quanta
of electric (e ) and magnetic (m ) fluxes of force of the
electron:   Acknowledgments
1 e 1/2
α= √ . (28)
4 2 m The authors are grateful to L K Isaev, V N Melnikov and
The quantity α, being dimensionless, is independent of M I Kalinin for valuable discussions. KB thanks David Mota
the system of units used. Equation (28) makes this for helpful correspondence.
independence manifest, which is an advantage as compared
with the conventional expressions (1). The representation
(28) made it possible [27] to interpret the range variation References
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