The Number of God

The Number of God

The number of God is 137.  What? Huh…? No, really, it’s a scientific fact according to this article in Big Think.  The number, known as the fine structure constant or simply “α” has baffled scientists since the 1800s.  It is a number derived from combining three of nature’s most fundamental quantities: the speed of light, the electric charge carried by a single electron and Planck’s constant of quantum mechanics. In symbols, that’s c, e and h.  If you multiply Planck’s constant by the speed of light and divide by 2π times the electric charge carried by a single electron—squared, the units cancel each other and you get the dimensionless number 137.  For historical reasons, the inverse is often used and it is precisely 1/137.03599913.

What is ‘α’ good for? It is used to measure how strongly charged particles such as electrons interact with electromagnetic fields. For example, it determines how quickly an excited atom emits a photon.  Like other physical constants, there is an Anthropic Principle involved—small, nay minute, changes in either direction and we wouldn’t exist to talk about it.  We’ve covered that topic before here at Internet Monk. I know for some of you, anthropic principle arguments are utterly facetious and unconvincing, but bear with me a little bit, and lets share in the awe and wonder of the universe, whether you think it’s all coincidental or all pre-planned.

My friend, David Heddle, a physicist at Christopher Newport University, points out, there are some fascinating observability coincidences. It’s like the universe is fine-tuned for doing science. Observability coincidence #1: Because of accelerated expansion, we’re in an era of maximal observability. Distant galaxies will begin to “blink off”; their light will no longer be able to reach our telescopes. “This is the first time in cosmic history that light from the most distant galaxies has reached the Milky Way—G. Veneziamo, Sci. Am., May 2004”. Observability coincidence #2: Location (safe between spiral arms—away from where the density of stars would disrupt the sun’s orbit. There is also too much radiation in these areas) gives us a window to the heavens. In a spiral arm, ambient interstellar dust would make it impossible to see outside the galaxy. In the bulge, there’d be no night. Observability Coincidence #3: Our moon (at this moment in history) provides for almost perfect solar eclipses. Solar eclipses provided the first test of General Relativity. Study of the chromosphere, made possible by solar eclipses, has benefited our knowledge of astrophysics. Observability Coincidence #4: The sun’s spectrum peaks near yellow. For whatever reason (design or evolution or both) our eyes are most sensitive to (near) yellow. This does not explain, however, the lucky coincidence that our atmosphere is also (narrowly) transparent—which permitted the development of science.

So 137 is another one of those “lucky coincidences” that seem to propel science forward.  Since the early 1900’s, physicists have thought that this number might be at the heart of a GUT, or Grand Unified Theory, which could relate the theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and most especially gravity.  The Big Think article notes:

Physicist Laurence Eaves, a professor at the University of Nottingham, thinks the number 137 would be the one you’d signal to the aliens to indicate that we have some measure of mastery over our planet and understand quantum mechanics. The aliens would know the number as well, especially if they developed advanced sciences…

The constant figures in other situations, making physicists wonder why. Why does nature insist on this number? It has appeared in various calculations in physics since the 1880s, spurring numerous attempts to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would incorporate the constant since. So far no single explanation took hold.

The fine structure constant reminds of the “Fibonacci sequence”, also known as the Golden Ratio.  The Fibonacci sequence starts like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…and so on forever. Each number is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. It’s a simple pattern, but it appears to be a kind of built-in numbering system to the cosmos.

The Fibonacci sequence can be seen in:

  1. Flower petals
  2. Seed heads
  3. Pinecones
  4. Fruits and Vegetables
  5. Tree branches
  6. Shells
  7. Spiral Galaxies
  8. Hurricanes
  9. Faces
  10. Fingers
  11. Animal bodies
  12. Reproductive dynamics
  13. Animal fight patterns
  14. The uterus
  15. DNA molecules

The question is “WHY”?  The famous physicist Richard Feynman is quoted as saying:

There is a most profound and beautiful question associated with the observed coupling constant, e, the amplitude for a real electron to emit or absorb a real photon. It is a simple number that has been experimentally determined to be close to -0.08542455. (My physicist friends won’t recognize this number, because they like to remember it as the inverse of its square: about 137.03597 with about an uncertainty of about 2 in the last decimal place. It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.) Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to p or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms?  Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!

Is it all just fascinating coincidence that we pattern-seeking monkeys just seem to recognize?  Or is God giving us, or any other intelligent life in the universe, a clue to recognize his creative hand?  “God is a pure mathematician!” declared British astronomer Sir James Jeans.  God throws the number that holds the Universe together. said Jeffery Phillips.  The Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) was obsessed with it (the fine structure constant) his whole life.  He famously quipped, “”When I die my first question to the Devil will be: What is the meaning of the fine structure constant?”

Oh… by the way… Pauli died in Room 137.

38 thoughts on “The Number of God

  1. I’m home now, and the surgery seems to have gone well. Recovery going well so far. Thanks for your prayers.


  2. A mathematician, an engineer, and a physicist are in their labs when a fire breaks out in each. The engineer grabs a fire extinguisher and puts his fire out. The physicist runs a quick calculation then uses a single drop of water in a critical location to put his fire out. The mathematician fills his chalkboard with myriads of calculations then excitedly states “a solution exists!”


  3. This post reminds me of Brian Greene’s “Elegant Universe.”

    Some good levity here today, too. Much appreciated.

    Prayers for you, Robert F.


  4. Robert F. . The prayers are being said for you. I know how stressful any type of surgery is. So many , wonderful advances in medicine the past few years , that many procedures are now routine but when it on you personally nothing is routine. When your surgery is successful I will call the AM station, blast from the past, and dedicate You’re So Vein by Carly Simon , to you or perhaps your leg. Seriously , best to you and prayer for you.

    just remind your surgeon, that you do not want the surgery to be in vain.


  5. This reminds me of the pi one I’ve heard:

    What is “pi”?
    Mathematician: Pi is the number expressing the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter.
    Physicist: Pi is 3.1415927 plus or minus 0.00000005
    Engineer: Pi is about 3.


  6. Old joke. A mathematician, an engineer, and a geologist are arguing about what 2+2 is equal to. The mathematician says 2 + 2 = 2 x 2 = 2 squared = 4. The engineer whips out his slide rule (told you it was an old joke) and says 2+2= 3.999999999999999999999999. The geologist says it’s a number somewhere between 3 and 5.


  7. I think our animal friends have not been given credit for the unknown ways in which the Creator has gifted them for their survival . . . . and surely some of those ways may be beyond our present knowledge because we have ‘assumed’ the animals were ‘lesser’ beings to their Creator. Maybe that we come to know the complexity of ‘life’ more fully, we might be humbled in the presence of all of Creation and see it in a new light, rather than as something to ‘dominate’ to the point of destruction because of human greed.

    “The life of every living thing is in His hand,
    as well as the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:10)


  8. Sorry I’m late, my evening prayers will include a special one for you and successful surgery.



  9. Completely off-subject: I’m having surgery later this morning for stripping of malfunctioning vein in my left leg. I ask for prayer for a successful outcome and recovery, and support for my wife as she awaits news of the outcome.


  10. > The Fibonacci sequence can be seen in
    > Seed heads

    It gets weirder. A few years ago the the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester took up the question of sunflower seed heads really used Fibonacci sequences by using crowd sources images of the flowers.

    Turns out: sorta.

    If I recall something like ~3-4 had seed patterns indicating an outward spiraling Fibonacci – whereas the other minority of flowers followed other, equally algorithmic, patterns, and a few flowers showed interlacing of more than one algorithm.

    Somehow “basic” [yeah] biology has a way to do math, pretty serious math. I remind myself that given what “simple” [yeah] computer chips can do this shouldn’t be that surprising . . . but . . . how?

    I also vaguely recall a study of pursuit vectors someone did with high resolution GPS trackers on wolves. Compared to insanely expensive hi-tech target seeking missiles the wolves were competitive. Unknowingly, can wolves do calculus in real-time?

    Somehow biology “knows” either some really good cheats or some appallingly efficient implementations of some pretty complicated algorithms. If we knew what those were I suspect my computer would be a whole lot faster.


  11. “Human thought is so primitive it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies. That kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” – K (Tommy Lee Jones), *Men in Black*


  12. One of them would, out of simple curiosity, check out what that Twitter thing is.
    And thus their society would be contaminated and inevitably doomed.


  13. 137.0359991 or 137.03597 are sort kinda 137. 🙂 How come God can’t use nice round numbers?


  14. Mike the G Man, Wow, loved it, the parts of the article I could follow were so interesting , I feel like the scare crow in the Wizard of Oz. My low brow mind immediately thought : How close to the Sheriff’s office is the University of Nottingham? Maybe the University takes from the smart and gives to the dumb, then book me a flight.

    I did somewhat follow the thought behind our near yellow sun affecting ability and as I am familiar with the “red” sun explanation of how Superman got his powers under our yellow sun. My first question to the Devil would be “Where did I go wrong”?

    I have been fairly inactive the past year and my Grand Unified Theory has increased but at least I know why my personal GUT is expanding. I hope it is not forever expanding . I just have a feeling in my stomach that the GUT theory might be correct.

    My go to reply when asked a higher math question is “God only knows” so I appreciate the article .

    If God is reading this I think you are #1, that is my number for God. Never hurts to cover the bases.


  15. “Physicist Laurence Eaves, a professor at the University of Nottingham, thinks the number 137 would be the one you’d signal to the aliens to indicate that we have some measure of mastery over our planet …”

    If they dropped in to check us out, they’d quickly realize their mistake.


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