Critiques and Responses Regarding Atomic Constants, Light and Time


Dear Mr. Setterfield,

Today I came across the variable speed of light on the internet. I decided to investigate it. In that investigation I found your original paper on the variable speed of light and read it. I realized from the assumptions that the paper was flawed so I am motivated to point out that mistake in the paper with this email.

In the assumptions you state that all methodologies of measurement were lumped together. This is a mistake to lump methodologies and the conclusions are to be discounted because of this mistake. I'll explain. 

Measurement is fickle. No two methodologies can be averaged for a conclusion, methodologies can be compared for usefulness, but not lumped together. I developed aerospace materials for 18 years and learned this lesson the hard way. NASA uses the ASTM methodologies, rigorously defined for reproducibility anywhere. Different methods were not accepted, only the method NASA concluded would produce good enough results to get the job done so the spacecraft would behave as predicted. The reason for this heavy-handedness by NASA is that in general, once a spacecraft goes up, no one can repair it, and the spacecraft must be engineered to work right the first time, so measurement must be defined, reproduceable, and standardized in the ASTM when appropriate to the customer specifications and then entered into the contract as quality control methodologies. Indeed, contracts with NASA are a lot of paperwork.

Because all data was lumped together, the next step was to subject the data to a curve fit. After that step, you are indeed destined to be drawn to your paper's conclusions. The assumption to lump the data is a mistake, the next two steps, curve fitting and drawing conclusions, do not hold, but they do logically follow. Many people will accept the logic and thus accept the conclusion. In my experience, few people examine assumptions. Many papers which use data can be analized in this way and found to fall down. The subject is not wrong, the methodology is not wrong, only the assumptions, and when the assumptions are wrong, the methodology cannot justify the conclusion, so the conclusion is wrong. This is a brutal truth, but I can explain more. 

If you examine each methodology by itself, for instance, the laser, you will see a sociological effect, the improvement of the methodology and the technology over time, reflected in the data. The data reported in your paper for the methodology of laser demonstrates that the methodology has settled down into reproducibility and is producing a constant value for 'c'. Several other methods show the measurement result 'settling down' as the method 'improves' over years or decades. Because of this settling effect the earlier data is discounted and the moste recent reproducable results are trusted. We used this technique to make aerospace materials and it works. What matters in engineering is not conclusions but only if you do what works. So, good engineers who understand measurement are then allowed to engineer again. The bad engineers look for another job to engineer again.

Measurement is a very subtile and difficult part of scientific thinking. Indeed the data demontrates to me in an intuitive fashion the socialogical effect of history upon the resulting measurement. Scientific thinking is difficult, it is based upon assumptions, conventions, and agreement. It is never right, it only approximates. It is in constant upheaval. Science will never know the truth, it will only know what works in the world today. There is nothing wrong with science, its paradox is that it is not absolute yet it provides the base of knowledge for the engineers of technology to create the machines we employ today, such as the internet and this email. When science is political, such as the current philosophical conflict between science and creationists, well, it is only politics. The email still goes through because of the engineers. All that matters is what works, good science works, bad science does not work. 

Science is not theology and cannot be such. Science will never tread the path of theology. I discounted the theological conclusions on creationist web sites once I saw the assumption in the paper of lumping the data together. That paper was flawed, as my experience in making spacecraft parts has demonstrated.

Assumptions are fundamental to success. If you want VSL badly enough you will change your assumptions. I assume the intent of the paper was honest, but methodology was flawed. If the intent of the paper was to push a theological agenda then the paper would be dishonest and you would have to face God about that at some point. I do not know your motivation. 

It does not matter if the speed of light is variable or not. I am not against VSL therory, I am against poor methodologies. Indeed, Magueijo is attempting to exploit VSL, Perhaps VSL will be proven, much the same way that Einstein upset the world with the notion of variable time and how it eventually was proven. My 'scientific' guess from the data you presented is that if variability exists, the actual variability would be a very very small number. VSL would then be true, but, an unusable concept to the creationist web sites which exploit it to prove the date of creation at about 10,000 years ago. The whole notion of proving this date seems to me no different than counting the angels on the head of a pin, more politics than truth searching.

Good science is like good theology, it is what lasts over time, it is what people find usable, it is what gets written into history. Indeed, we no longer hold all of the ancient beliefs, times change, some beliefs change, and indeed, our beliefs of today will not all be present in the future, only those beliefs which are usable will endure in those of the future. I hope my voice provides illumination, I do not intend consternation. God has created a world which is here for us to discover. Let's keep at it.


Setterfield:  Thank you for your important letter.  Your time and effort are appreciated.

However, I think that if you had read my 1987 Report in more detail, it might have become apparent that I had indeed treated each measurement method individually and had drawn the correct conclusions as a result. The Report was built up one Table at a time where all the measured values by a particular method were listed. In that process, it was shown statistically that each measurement method registered a decline in the value of c over time. For example, Table 3 (scroll down a bit) lists only the aberration method results. In fact, I go further. The first Figure in the Report is a graph of the aberration measurements exclusively from the Pulkova Observatory where the same equipment had been used for over a century.  The result was a clear decline in the value of c so obtained.

I could go further still. For example, I point out in the Report, that on a number of occasions, apart from Pulkova, the same equipment was used by experimenters at a later date. In each case a lower value for c was recorded on the second occasion. Finally, when all methods are put together, there is still a resultant decline in c.

In this matter, I am intrigued by the fanfare with which it was announced recently that astronomical observations might have indicated a change by one part in 100,000 in the fine-structure constant.  However, the more obvious measured changes in c seem to be treated rather dismissively by comparison. I might be rather perverse, but the situation does appeal to my sense of humour!

Under these circumstances, I suggest that a closer reading of the Report would nullify much of your well-intentioned criticism. I trust this answers your concerns.

One other comment. You wrote, "Good science is like good theology, it is what lasts over time, it is what people find usable, it is what gets written into history." I would like to respectfully disagree with you. Good science and good theology are both centered on the truth, not on how long people believe in something and not how usable it might be. History is constantly being rewritten to satisfy political ideologies. Let's go for the truth.


Question:  Would please comment on this scientists review of your paper, “The Atomic Constants, Light and Time”. 

"I have looked at the article carefully and come to exactly the opposite conclusion as the authors.  The data they show is typical of a number that is actually constant.  Early measurements have large errors and fluctuate either high or low (usually in only one direction) from later high precision measurements. Note in the article that from the early measurements the authors get a change of the speed of light of maybe 50 km/s per year.  In the high precision measurements they get things like 0.005 km/s per year.  This shows no real change but a completely understandable convergence of measurements.  It happens all the time in science. 

There was some real possibility that the speed of light may change about 3 years ago when supernova measurements showed a very small change in the fine structure constant.  (This news made the New York Times).  However, the size of the change was so small as to make the article you sent me totally false. In other words, recent measurements have measured the speed of light back billions of years and it is constant or changes only very slightly.  However, even more recent measurements have made those of three years ago suspect.  The very best experimental evidence is that the speed of light has been constant over the history of the universe, and that even if it has changed, it has changed by almost imperceptible amounts over the age of the universe.  The data in the article is very typical of the history of a measurement of a constant value." 


Setterfield:  Thank you for the review. It covers old ground. Let me comment briefly about it. 

In the first place a much more rigorous statistical analysis was done on all the data by Canadian statistician A. Montgomery and L. Dolphin and published in a peer-reviewed journal. That data analysis has withstood all criticism. The conclusion those authors came to was the same as in our 1987 Report, namely that the speed of light has dropped with time and that the associated constants were trending as our 1987 Report indicated. That paper by the Canadian statistician is “Is the Velocity of Light Constant in Time?” 

Your critic here states that “The data they show is typical of a number that is actually constant.  Early measurements have large errors and fluctuate either high or low (usually in only one direction) from later high precision measurements.”  What I find interesting here is the insertion of the parenthesis statement (usually in only one direction). It is true that early measurements of a quantity may have large errors, but one thing that was noticed in the case where a constant quantity was involved was that the spread of data points was random around the fixed value. It rarely showed a one-sided departure. In the case of lightspeed, sixteen different methods were employed to measure c. In each case, without exception, the values obtained were always above the currently accepted value. This is not a normal distribution about a fixed point. If, as the critic claims, the data should show a one-sided departure, that would at the very most only pertain to one type of measurement method, and that would be different for the other methods. In short, a one-sided departure from a normal distribution is NOT considered to be the statistical norm for measurement errors. 

The second point that needs to be addressed is that the measured drop in c was greater than the experimental error. There are 17 examples in the data set where the same equipment was used at a later date (sometimes by the same observer), and in each case the value of c was lower at the later date than for the earlier one. This is particularly important in the case of the data from Pulkova Observatory. There the data were collected by the aberration method for over 100 years. The data showed a decline in c. Interestingly, the Pulkova environment allowed a systematic error that shifted the value of c into a lower range than by other experiments. Nevertheless, the decline in c values was very apparent, and the early values for c were well above those currently accepted.  In each case the decay was non-linear and tapering. At the same time another circumstance must be commented on. In the early 1880’s three different determination of c were made by distinctly different methods. The experimenters were unaware of each other’s activity. All 3 methods gave the same value of c to within 5 km/s, yet the value obtained was nearly 100 km/s greater than now. 

This introduces the third point that needs to be made. Physicists of the 19th and 20th centuries admitted that the measured value of c was declining. In 1886, Newcomb commented in Nature for May 13th that the values of c obtained around 1740 were consistent among themselves, but placed c about 1% higher than in the 1880’s. In 1941 Birge made a similar comment about the data obtained in the 1880’s (some of it by Newcomb)) and commented that “These older results are entirely consistent among themselves, but their average is nearly 100 km/s greater than that given by the eight more recent results.” About that same time, Dorsey stated “As is well known to those acquainted with the several determinations of the velocity of light, the definitive values successively reported… have, in general, decreased monotonously…”  

As far as the supernovae data are concerned, the quantity being measured was the fine-structure constant. That combines the quantities hc with the electronic charge and the permittivity of free space. It was shown in the paper under review by your critic that Planck’s constant, h, is inversely proportional to c, so that the quantity hc is invariant for all values of h and c. [Note that in 1965 J. H. Sanders commented in “The Fundamental Atomic Constants, p. 13, Oxford, that “Increasing values of h can only partly be accounted for by improvements in instrumental resolution and changes in accepted values of other constants.” A reviewer also commented that instrumental resolution “may in part explain the trend in the figures, but I admit that such an explanation does not appear to be quantitatively adequate.”] With the product hc being invariant, the variations in the value of the fine structure constant do NOT reflect a change in the speed of light, but rather a possible variation in the ratio of the electronic charge (squared) divided by the permittivity of free space in a gravitational field. Therefore, it is inappropriate to use this quantity as evidence for changes in the speed of light. The quantity hc has been measured as constant over astronomical distances by other methods. One cannot deduce any information about the behaviour of either h or c separately from such data. 

I trust that gives some balance to the whole discussion.



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