What is one over alpha?

What is oneoveralpha?

One over Alpha is pretty much 137.

What? You want more? Fine.

Back in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, physicists were beginning to work out the equations dealing with atomic structure. In their calculations, they kept coming across this clump of constants; the charge on the electron, the speed of light, pi, and others. To clean up their equations a bit, they decided to make a new constant out of these other constants. They named it the Fine-Structure Constant, and labeled it with the Greek letter alpha. Now, one of the interesting things about alpha is that it is a pure number. What that means is that most constants have units. The speed of light is not just 299,792,458. It is 299,792,458 meters per second. (I have a BS in Physics, that’s how I can just rattle that number off.) But when you take all the units from all the constants in alpha - meters, seconds, Coulombs, Joules, and Farads - they all cancel out, leaving a pure number.

The other interesting thing about alpha is its value, which is about 0.00729735.... Now, if you take one, and divide it by 0.0072935... (one over alpha, if you will) you will get approximately 137. More accurately it is 137.0359895....

Now, why is that interesting? Basically because it is weird. Is it just coincidence that by taking a clump of physical constants of the universe, putting them together the right way, you come up with a number that is close to 137? Or, is it an indication that there is a deeper level of structure to the universe that we haven’t learned about yet? Is it meaningless, or a clue to a deeper understanding of the universe? Nobody can say. That is why it is interesting.

Over the years, many physicists have been intrigued by this number. I believe I heard this story from one of my professors. Richard P. Feynman (who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics) advocated that all physicists should have a sign reading “137” in their lab, or office, or home, as a reminder that we do not know everything; there will always be mysteries to solve. Apparently it’s also supposed to be the physicist’s distress signal. If you are a physicist in need of help, write “137” on a piece of cardboard, then stand on a busy street corner. Eventually, after thousands of odd looks, a physicist will wander by, see you are in distress, and offer assistance.

I just find this whole idea, fascinating. It is a question that will almost certainly not be answered in my lifetime, if at all. I just find that cool. (Yeah, as if you are perfectly normal.) So that is why I named my website oneoveralpha.

For more, you can check out Wikipedia.

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