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Physicists Say They Have Found the “Magic Number”

They have refined measurements of a number that is key to the workings of physics

Okay, first, it’s not literally “magic.” But some numbers are very important in the structure of our universe. In this case they are refining a very important but very strange number that links the forces of our universe:

This pure number, with no units and dimensions, is key to the workings of the standard model of physics. Scientists were able to improve its precision 2.5 times or 81 parts per trillion (p.p.t.), determining the value of the constant to be α = 1/137.03599920611 (with the last two digits still being uncertain).

Paul Ratner, “Scientists find the “magic number” that links forces of the universe” at BigThink

The numbers that matter are not necessarily the ones we might expect. How about 1/137?:

Numerically, the fine-structure constant, denoted by the Greek letter α (alpha), comes very close to the ratio 1/137. It commonly appears in formulas governing light and matter. “It’s like in architecture, there’s the golden ratio,” said Eric Cornell, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In the physics of low-energy matter — atoms, molecules, chemistry, biology — there’s always a ratio” of bigger things to smaller things, he said. “Those ratios tend to be powers of the fine-structure constant.”

Natalie Wolchover, “Physicists Nail Down the ‘Magic Number’ That Shapes the Universe” at Quanta

Here are a couple of others:

Absolute zero, which we now know to be slightly more than –459 degrees Fahrenheit. Absolute zero falls in the same category as the speed of light. Material objects can get ever so close, but they can never reach it.

James D. Stein, “The 13 Most Important Numbers in the Universe” at Popular Mechanics (September 16, 2011)

Then there’s the Chandrasekhar limit:

The size of a star determines its fate. Stars the size of the sun live relatively quiet lives (though billions of years from now the sun will expand and engulf the earth). Stars slightly larger than the sun will become white dwarves, intensely hot but small stars that will cool slowly and die. However, if a star exceeds a certain mass—the Chandrasekhar limit—then it is destined to become a supernova.

The Chandrasekhar limit is approximately 1.4 times the mass of the sun. Extraordinarily, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar discovered this as a 20-year-old student by combining the theories of stellar composition, relativity and quantum mechanics during a trip on a steamship from India to England.

James D. Stein, “The 13 Most Important Numbers in the Universe” at Popular Mechanics (September 16, 2011)

Stein’s 2011 book, Cosmic Numbers, has more.

None of this is mystical, as such. But our universe seems designed in a certain way and fine-tuned to produce life. If so, certain numbers are necessarily more important than others, just as would be the case with any designed object that must have a physical structure and a means of operation.

This video offers ten numbers. Enjoy!

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Physicists Say They Have Found the “Magic Number”