Physical constant

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A fundamental physical constant is a physical quantity that is generally believed to be both universal in nature and constant in time. It can be contrasted with a mathematical constant, which is a fixed numerical value, but does not directly involve any physical measurement.

There are many physical constants in science, some of the most widely recognized being the speed of light in vacuum c, the gravitational constant G, Planck's constant h, the electric constant ε0, and the elementary charge e. Physical constants can take many dimensional forms: the speed of light signifies a maximum speed limit of the Universe and is expressed dimensionally as length divided by time; while the fine-structure constant α, which characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, is dimensionless.

Fundamental physical constant in the sense under discussion in this article should not be confused with other quantities called "constants" which are assumed to be constant in a given context without the implication that they are in any way fundamental, such as the "time constant" characteristic to a given system, or material constants, such as the Madelung constant, electrical resistivity, heat capacity, etc. listed for convenience.

Choice of units[edit]

Main article: System of measurement

Whereas the physical quantity indicated by any physical constant does not depend on the unit system used to express the quantity, the numerical values of dimensional physical constants do depend on choice of unit system. The term "physical constant" refers to the physical quantity, and not to the numerical value within any given system of units. For example, the speed of light is defined as having the numerical value of 299,792,458 in SI units, and as having the numerical value of 1 in natural units. While its numerical value can be defined at will by the choice of units, the speed of light itself is a single physical constant.

Any ratio between physical constants of the same dimensions results in a dimensionless physical constant. E.g. the proton-to-electron mass ratio. Any relation between physical quantites can be expressed as a relation between dimensionless ratios via a process known as nondimensionalisation.

The term of "fundamental physical constant" is reserved for physical quantities which according to the current state of knowledge are regarded as immutable and as non-derivable from more fundamental principles. Notable examples are the speed of light c, and the gravitational constant G.[1]

The fine-structure constant α is the best known dimensionless fundamental physical constant. It is the value of the elementary charge squared expressed in Planck units. This value has become a standard example when discussing the derivability or non-derivability of physical constants. Introduced by Arnold Sommerfeld, its value as determined at the time was consistent with 1/137. This motivated Arthur Eddington (1929) to construct an argument why its value might be 1/137 precisely, which related to the Eddington number, his estimate of the number of protons in the Universe.[2] By the 1940s, it became clear that the value of the fine structure constant deviates significantly from the precise value of 1/137, refuting Eddington's argument.[3]

With the development of quantum chemistry in the 20th century, however, a vast number of previously inexplicable dimensionless physical constants were successfully computed from theory. In light of that, some theoretical physicists still hope for continued progress in explaining the values of other dimensionless physical constants.

It is known that the Universe would be very different, if these constants took values significantly different from those we observe. For example, a few percent change in the value of the fine structure constant would be enough to eliminate stars like our Sun. This has prompted attempts at anthropic explanations of the values of some of the dimensionless fundamental physical constants.

Natural units[edit]

Main article: Natural units

Using dimensional analysis, it is possible to combine dimensional universal physical constants to define a system of units of measurement that has no reference to any human construct. Depending on the choice and arrangement of constants used, the resulting natural units may have useful physical meaning. For example, Planck units, shown below, use c, G, ħ, ε0 and kB in such a manner to derive units relevant to unified theories such as quantum gravity.

Base Planck units
Name Dimension Expression Value[4] (SI units)
Planck length Length (L) 1.616 199(97) × 10−35 m[5]
Planck mass Mass (M) 2.176 51(13) × 10−8 kg[6]
Planck time Time (T) 5.391 06(32) × 10−44 s[7]
Planck charge Electric charge (Q) 1.875 545 956(41) × 10−18 C[8][9][10]
Planck temperature Temperature (Θ) 1.416 833(85) × 1032 K[11]

Number of fundamental constants[edit]

The number of fundamental physical constants depends on the physical theory accepted as "fundamental". Currently, this is the theory of general relativity for gravitation and the Standard Model for electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear interactions and the matter fields. Between them, these theories account for a total of 19 independent fundamental constants. There is, however, no single "correct" way of enumerating them, as it is a matter of arbitrary choice which quantities are considered "fundamental" and which as "derived". Uzan (2011) lists 22 "unknown constants" in the fundamental theories, which give rise to 19 "unknown dimensionless parameters", as follows:

The number of 19 independent fundamental physical constants is subject to change under possible extensions of the Standard Model, notably by the introduction of neutrino mass (equivalent to seven additional constants, i.e. 3 Yukawa couplings and 4 lepton mixing parameters).[12]

The discovery of variability in any of these constants would be equivalent to the discovery of "New Physics".[13]

The question as to which constants are "fundamental" is neither straightforward nor meaningless, but a question of interpretation of the physical theory regarded as fundamental; as pointed out by Lévy-Leblond (1979), not all physical constants are of the same importance, with some being having a deeper role than others. Lévy-Leblond (1979) proposed a classification schemes of three types of fundamental constant:

  • A: characteristic of a particular system
  • B: characteristic of a class of physical phenomena
  • C: universal constants

The same physical constant may move from one category to another as the understanding of its role deepens; this as notably happened to the speed of light, which was a class A constant (characteristic of light) when it was first measured, but became a class B constant (characteristic of electromagnetic phenomena) with the development of classical electromagnetism, and finally a class C constant with the discovery of Special Relativity.[14]

Tests on time-independence[edit]

By definition, fundamental physical constants are subject to measurement, so that their being constant (independent on both the time and position of the performance of the measurement) is necessarily an experimental result and subject to verification.

Paul Dirac in 1937 speculated that physical constants such as the gravitational constant or the fine-structure constant might be subject to change over time in proportion of the Age of the Universe. Experiments can in principle only put an upper bound on the relative change per year. For the fine-structure constant, this upper bound is comparatively low, at roughly 10−17 per year (as of 2008).[15]

The gravitational constant is much more difficult to measure with precision, and conflicting measurements in the 2000s have inspired the controversial suggestions of a periodic variation of its value in a 2015 paper.[16] However, while its value is not known to great precision, the possibility of observing type Ia supernovae which happened in the universe's remote past, paired with the assumption that the physics involved in these events is universal, allows for an upper bound of less than 10-10 per year for the gravitational constant over the last nine billion years.[17]

Similarly, an upper bound of the change in the proton-to-electron mass ratio has been placed at 10−7 over a period of 7 billion years (or 10-16 per year) in a 2012 study based on the observation of methanol in a distant galaxy.[18][19]

It is problematic to discuss the proposed rate of change (or lack thereof) of a single dimensional physical constant in isolation. The reason for this is that the choice of a system of units may arbitrarily select as its basis, making the question of which constant is undergoing change an artefact of the choice of units.[20][21]

For example, in SI units, the speed of light has been given a defined value in 1983. Thus, it was meaningful to experimentally measure the speed of light in SI units prior to 1983, but it is not so now. The proposed redefinition of SI base units, scheduled for 2018, seeks to express all SI base units in terms of fundamental physical constants.

Tests on the immutability of physical constants look at dimensionless quantities, i.e. ratios between quantities of like dimensions, in order to escape this problem. Changes in physical constants are not meaningful if they result in an observationally indistinguishable universe. For example, a "change" in the speed of light c would be meaningless if accompanied by a corresponding change in the elementary charge e so that the ratio e2:c (the fine-structure constant) remained unchanged.[22]

Fine-tuned Universe[edit]

Some physicists have explored the notion that if the dimensionless physical constants had sufficiently different values, our Universe would be so radically different that intelligent life would probably not have emerged, and that our Universe therefore seems to be fine-tuned for intelligent life. The anthropic principle states a logical truism: the fact of our existence as intelligent beings who can measure physical constants requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. There are a variety of interpretations of the constants' values, including that of a divine creator (the apparent fine-tuning is actual and intentional), or that ours is one universe of many in a multiverse (e.g. the Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), or even that, if information is an innate property of the universe and logically inseparable from consciousness, a universe without the capacity for conscious beings cannot exist.

Table of physical constants[edit]

Universal constants[edit]

Symbol Value[23][24] Relative Standard Uncertainty
speed of light in vacuum 299 792 458 m·s−1 defined
Newtonian constant of gravitation 6.67408(31)×10−11 m3·kg−1·s−2 4.7 × 10−5
Planck constant 6.626 070 040(81) × 10−34 J·s 1.2 × 10−8
reduced Planck constant 1.054 571 800(13) × 10−34 J·s 1.2 × 10−8

Electromagnetic constants[edit]

Symbol Value[23][25] (SI units) Relative Standard Uncertainty
magnetic constant (vacuum permeability) 4π × 10−7 N·A−2 = 1.256 637 061... × 10−6 N·A−2 defined
electric constant (vacuum permittivity) 8.854 187 817... × 10−12 F·m−1 defined
characteristic impedance of vacuum 376.730 313 461... Ω defined
Coulomb's constant 8.987 551 787... × 109 N·m2·C−2 defined
elementary charge 1.602 176 565(35) × 10−19 C 2.2 × 10−8
Bohr magneton 9.274 009 68(20) × 10−24 J·T−1 2.2 × 10−8
conductance quantum 7.748 091 7346(25) × 10−5 S 3.2 × 10−10
inverse conductance quantum 12 906.403 7217(42) Ω 3.2 × 10−10
Josephson constant 4.835 978 70(11) × 1014 Hz·V−1 2.2 × 10−8
magnetic flux quantum 2.067 833 758(46) × 10−15 Wb 2.2 × 10−8
nuclear magneton 5.050 783 53(11) × 10−27 J·T−1 2.2 × 10−8
von Klitzing constant 25 812.807 4434(84) Ω 3.2 × 10−10

Atomic and nuclear constants[edit]

Symbol Value[23][25] (SI units) Relative Standard Uncertainty
Bohr radius 5.291 772 1092(17) × 10−11 m 3.2 × 10−9
classical electron radius 2.817 940 3267(27) × 10−15 m 9.7 × 10−10
electron mass 9.109 382 91(40) × 10−31 kg 4.4 × 10−8
Fermi coupling constant 1.166 364(5) × 10−5 GeV−2 4.3 × 10−6
fine-structure constant 7.297 352 5698(24) × 10−3 3.2 × 10−10
Hartree energy 4.359 744 34(19) × 10−18 J 4.4 × 10−8
proton mass 1.672 621 777(74) × 10−27 kg 4.4 × 10−8
quantum of circulation 3.636 947 5520(24) × 10−4 m2 s−1 6.5 × 10−10
Rydberg constant 10 973 731.568 539(55) m−1 5.0 × 10−12
Thomson cross section 6.652 458 734(13) × 10−29 m2 1.9 × 10−9
weak mixing angle 0.2223(21) 9.5 × 10−3
Efimov factor 22.7

Physico-chemical constants[edit]

Symbol Value[23][25] (SI units) Relative Standard Uncertainty
Atomic mass constant 1.660 538 921(73) × 10−27 kg 4.4 × 10−8
Avogadro's number 6.022 141 29(27) × 1023 mol−1 4.4 × 10−8
Boltzmann constant 1.380 6488(13) × 10−23 J·K−1 9.1 × 10−7
Faraday constant 96 485.3365(21)C·mol−1 2.2 × 10−8
first radiation constant 3.741 771 53(17) × 10−16 W·m2 4.4 × 10−8
for spectral radiance 1.191 042 869(53) × 10−16 W·m2·sr−1 4.4 × 10−8
Loschmidt constant at =273.15 K and =101.325 kPa 2.686 7805(24) × 1025 m−3 9.1 × 10−7
gas constant 8.314 4621(75) J·K−1·mol−1 9.1 × 10−7
molar Planck constant 3.990 312 7176(28) × 10−10 J·s·mol−1 7.0 × 10−10
molar volume of an ideal gas at =273.15 K and =100 kPa 2.271 0953(21) × 10−2 m3·mol−1 9.1 × 10−7
at =273.15 K and =101.325 kPa 2.241 3968(20) × 10−2 m3·mol−1 9.1 × 10−7
Sackur-Tetrode constant at =1 K and =100 kPa
−1.151 7078(23) 2.0 × 10−6
at =1 K and =101.325 kPa −1.164 8708(23) 1.9 × 10−6
second radiation constant 1.438 7770(13) × 10−2 m·K 9.1 × 10−7
Stefan–Boltzmann constant 5.670 373(21) × 10−8 W·m−2·K−4 3.6 × 10−6
Wien displacement law constant 4.965 114 231... 2.897 7721(26) × 10−3 m·K 9.1 × 10−7

Adopted values[edit]

Quantity Symbol Value (SI units) Relative Standard Uncertainty
conventional value of Josephson constant[26] 4.835 979 × 1014 Hz·V−1 defined
conventional value of von Klitzing constant[27] 25 812.807 Ω defined
molar mass constant 1 × 10−3 kg·mol−1 defined
of carbon-12 1.2 × 10−2 kg·mol−1 defined
standard acceleration of gravity (gee, free-fall on Earth) 9.806 65 m·s−2 defined
standard atmosphere 101 325 Pa defined

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 2010 Values of the Constants; NIST, 2011.
  2. ^ A.S Eddington (1956). "The Constants of Nature". In J.R. Newman. The World of Mathematics 2. Simon & Schuster. pp. 1074–1093. 
  3. ^ H. Kragh (2003). "Magic Number: A Partial History of the Fine-Structure Constant". Archive for History of Exact Sciences 57 (5): 395. doi:10.1007/s00407-002-0065-7. 
  4. ^ Fundamental Physical Constants from NIST
  5. ^ CODATA — Planck length
  6. ^ CODATA — Planck mass
  7. ^ CODATA — Planck time
  8. ^ CODATA — electric constant
  9. ^ CODATA — Planck constant over 2 pi
  10. ^ CODATA — speed of light in vacuum
  11. ^ CODATA — Planck temperature
  12. ^ Jean-Philippe Uzan, "Varying Constants, Gravitation and Cosmology", Living Rev. Relativity, 14.2 (2011), p. 10f.
  13. ^ "Any constant varying in space and/or time would reflect the existence of an almost massless field that couples to matter. This will induce a violation of the universality of free fall. Thus, it is of utmost importance for our understanding of gravity and of the domain of validity of general relativity to test for their constancy." Jean-Philippe Uzan, "Varying Constants, Gravitation and Cosmology", Living Rev. Relativity, 14.2 (2011), 10f.
  14. ^ Lévy-Leblond, J.-M., “The importance of being (a) Constant”, in Toraldo di Francia, G., ed., Problems in the Foundations of Physics, Proceedings of the International School of Physics ‘Enrico Fermi’ Course LXXII, Varenna, Italy, July 25 – August 6, 1977, pp. 237–263, (NorthHolland, Amsterdam; New York, 1979).
  15. ^ T. Rosenband; et al. (2008). "Frequency Ratio of Al+ and Hg+ Single-Ion Optical Clocks; Metrology at the 17th Decimal Place". Science 319 (5871): 1808–12. Bibcode:2008Sci...319.1808R. doi:10.1126/science.1154622. PMID 18323415. 
  16. ^ J.D. Anderson; G. Schubert; V. Trimble; M.R. Feldman (April 2015), "Measurements of Newton’s gravitational constant and the length of day" (PDF), EPL 110: 10002, arXiv:1504.06604, Bibcode:2015EL....11010002A, doi:10.1209/0295-5075/110/10002 
  17. ^ J. Mould; S. A. Uddin (2014-04-10), "Constraining a Possible Variation of G with Type Ia Supernovae", Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia 31: e015, arXiv:1402.1534, Bibcode:2014PASA...31...15M, doi:10.1017/pasa.2014.9 
  18. ^ Bagdonaite, Julija; Jansen, Paul; Henkel, Christian; Bethlem, Hendrick L.; Menten, Karl M.; Ubachs, Wim (December 13, 2012). "A Stringent Limit on a Drifting Proton-to-Electron Mass Ratio from Alcohol in the Early Universe". Science. Bibcode:2013Sci...339...46B. doi:10.1126/science.1224898. Retrieved December 14, 2012. 
  19. ^ Moskowitz, Clara (December 13, 2012). "Phew! Universe's Constant Has Stayed Constant". Retrieved December 14, 2012. 
  20. ^ Duff, M. J. (13 August 2002). "Comment on time-variation of fundamental constants". arXiv:hep-th/0208093. 
  21. ^ Duff, M. J.; Okun, L. B.; Veneziano, G. (2002). "Trialogue on the number of fundamental constants". Journal of High Energy Physics 3: 023–023. arXiv:physics/0110060. Bibcode:2002JHEP...03..023D. doi:10.1088/1126-6708/2002/03/023. 
  22. ^ Barrow, John D. (2002), The Constants of Nature; From Alpha to Omega - The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe, Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-375-42221-8  "[An] important lesson we learn from the way that pure numbers like α define the World is what it really means for worlds to be different. The pure number we call the fine structure constant and denote by α is a combination of the electron charge, e, the speed of light, c, and Planck's constant, h. At first we might be tempted to think that a world in which the speed of light was slower would be a different world. But this would be a mistake. If c, h, and e were all changed so that the values they have in metric (or any other) units were different when we looked them up in our tables of physical constants, but the value of α remained the same, this new world would be observationally indistinguishable from our World. The only thing that counts in the definition of worlds are the values of the dimensionless constants of Nature. If all masses were doubled in value you cannot tell, because all the pure numbers defined by the ratios of any pair of masses are unchanged."
  23. ^ a b c d The values are given in the so-called concise form; the number in parentheses after the mantissa is the standard uncertainty, which is the value multiplied by the relative standard uncertainty, and indicates the amount by which the least significant digits of the value are uncertain. For example, 75 is the standard uncertainty in "8.314 4621(75)", and means that the value is between 8.314 4546 and 8.314 4696.
  24. ^ Mohr, Peter J.; Newell, David B.; Taylor, Barry N. "CODATA Recommended Values of the Fundamental Physical Constants: 2014". arXiv:1507.07956v1 [physics.atom-ph]. 
  25. ^ a b c P.J. Mohr, B.N. Taylor, and D.B. Newell (2011), "The 2010 CODATA Recommended Values of the Fundamental Physical Constants" (Web Version 6.0). This database was developed by J. Baker, M. Douma, and S. Kotochigova. Available: [Thursday, 02-Jun-2011 21:00:12 EDT]. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD 20899.
  26. ^ This is the value adopted internationally for realizing representations of the volt using the Josephson effect.
  27. ^ This is the value adopted internationally for realizing representations of the ohm using the quantum Hall effect.

External links[edit]