3 July 2004

Speed of light may have changed recently

The speed of light, one of the most sacrosanct of the universal physical constants, may have been lower as recently as two billion years ago - and not in some far corner of the universe, but right here on Earth.

The controversial finding is turning up the heat on an already simmering debate, especially since it is based on re-analysis of old data that has long been used to argue for exactly the opposite: the constancy of the speed of light and other constants.

A varying speed of light contradicts Einstein's theory of relativity, and would undermine much of traditional physics. But some physicists believe it would elegantly explain puzzling cosmological phenomena such as the nearly uniform temperature of the universe. It might also support string theories that predict extra spatial dimensions.

The threat to the idea of an invariable speed of light comes from measurements of another parameter called the fine structure constant, or alpha, which dictates the strength of the electromagnetic force. The speed of light is inversely proportional to alpha, and though alpha also depends on two other constants (see graphic), many physicists tend to interpret a change in alpha as a change in the speed of light. It is a valid simplification, says Victor Flambaum of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

It was Flambaum, along with John Webb and colleagues, who first seriously challenged alpha's status as a constant in 1998. Then, after exhaustively analysing how the light from distant quasars was absorbed by intervening gas clouds, they claimed in 2001 that alpha had increased by a few parts in 105 in the past 12 billion years.

Yikes (if you're a traditional physicist) or wow (if you're anyone else or a traditional physicist with lots of imagination).

Big spender: Howard's $29m ad bill

With the Prime Minister, John Howard, still playing bluff on calling an election as early as tomorrow, new figures reveal the Federal Government is accelerating bumper taxpayer-financed advertising of its policies.

Latest industry figures show the Government spent $29 million in the past six months, up nearly 60 per cent on the same period last year.

More than $4 million was spent in just one week last month on promoting measures including the Medicare changes and the $600 child payment.

Spending by the Department of Health, largely on the Strengthening Medicare campaign, topped $10.5 million in the six months, according to Nielsen Media Research AdEx.

The Department of Family and Community Services spent $1.1 million and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet $3.2 million.

There is much more to come according to information released to the Opposition, which has estimated the advertising bills will total $122 million this year. The Government says the figure is about $90 million.

Mr Howard, who insisted yesterday he would rely on 'gut instinct' on when to go to the country, would not rule out calling the contest tomorrow, for an August 7 poll.

While most insiders say a move tomorrow is unlikely, government departments in recent weeks have rushed to clear any policy initiatives before the election campaign puts the Government into caretaker mode.

We really need better rules on government advertising and we need a fixed date for federal elections.

The constitution says:

Duration of House of Representatives.
28. Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.

That's just not good enough. Note that the term is not 3 years and there's no provision for when a new House must meet after the election. The last federal election was 10 November 2001. The last day for the next federal election, because of the gap between election day and the first meeting of the House, is 16 April 2005. That is too long and too flaky.

The government does not go into caretaker mode until the House is actually dissolved by the governor-general on the prime minister's advice. Politicised ads, paid for by public funds, are entirely legal until the dissolution. The government not only determines the date but is in a position to run a massive advertising campaign immediately before announcing the date. The Herald report merely confirms what we already guessed.

29 June 2004

Harradine set to quit after 29 years

A Catholic conservative and former right-wing member of the Labor Party, he was first elected as a senator for Tasmania in 1975. He has been a key player in the Senate's balance of power, particularly during the Howard Government's first term, when he often found himself with the deciding vote.

Told of Senator Harradine's retirement plans by a reporter while campaigning in the Tasmanian electorate of Bass yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard said he had great admiration and respect for the senator.

'I have found him to be an immensely decent, committed person, a very fine Australian and someone who's worked very hard for the people of Tasmania,' Mr Howard said.

Senator Harradine was widely recognised for winning $150 million of concessions for Tasmania when he cast the deciding vote for a 30 per cent sale of Telstra in July 1998.

But he nearly sank the GST in 1999 when he voted against it, forcing the Government to make a deal with the Democrats. Other important votes on the Wik Native Title legislation, the private health insurance rebate and the second part sale of Telstra went the Government's way.

Election analyst Antony Green said a decision by Senator Harradine not to contest the election would open the way for the Greens and Labor to benefit in Tasmania. 'It will probably make the Senate contest easier to pick: three Labor, two Liberals and a Green,' he said.

This should drive the last nail into the Magic 38 thesis.

2002-03 Redistribution of Commonwealth Electoral Boundaries

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 provides three triggers for a redistribution of Commonwealth electoral boundaries. Under section 59 of the Act a redistribution shall occur:

  • when there is a change in the representational entitlements of a state or territory
  • when more than one third of the divisions in a state or territory vary from the average divisional enrolment for the state or territory by more than ten per cent for three consecutive months, or
  • if seven years ('seven year rule') have elapsed since the last redistribution in the state or territory.

A redistribution of Commonwealth electoral boundaries occurred during 2002 and 2003 in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. The redistribution in Victoria was occasioned by the 'seven year rule', while the redistributions in Queensland and South Australia were triggered by a change in the representational entitlements of the two jurisdictions.

The second trigger, malapportionment of electoral divisions, has not occasioned a redistribution since the three triggers were incorporated in the Act in 1984.

Worth reading for the impact of boundary changes, especially in Queensland and South Australia.

The Northern Territory missed a second seat by 295 voters. This was fixed by the House of Representatives (Northern Territory Representation) Act 2004 which restores the territory's second seat.

Into the Abyss

Around Iraq, the States that have most to fear from an American collapse are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Each in its own way, all three depend on American support. All suffer under severe social strain, whether against an ethnic background%u2014as in Jordan where Bedouin and Palestinians clash%u2014or a religious one as is mainly the case in the other two. As unrest spreads from Iraq probably not all three will see their regimes overthrown, but one or two might well undergo this fate. Jordan being a small and weak country, its fate will be of concern mainly to its immediate neighbors such as Syria%u2014which, if it tries to intervene, will have Israel to reckon with%u2014Israel, and Saudi Arabia. By contrast, the collapse of Saudi Arabia, or a situation whereby Egypt turns into an Islamic republic and abrogates its peace treaty with Israel, would have world-wide economic and strategic implications that are hard to foresee.

In the short run, the greatest beneficiary of the war is Israel. The destruction of Iraq has created a situation where, for the first time since the State was founded in 1948, it has no real conventional enemy left within about 600 miles of its borders. If Sharon had any sense he would use this window of opportunity to come to some kind of arrangement with the Palestinians. Whether he will do so, though, remains to be seen.

In the longer run, the greatest beneficiary is likely to be Iran which, without having to lift a finger, has seen its most dangerous enemy ground into the dust. Even before President Bush launched his war against Iraq, the Iranians, feeling surrounded by nuclear-capable American forces on three sides (Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, the Persian Gulf), were working as hard as they could to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to match. Now that the U.S. has proved it is prepared to fight anybody for no reason at all, they should be forgiven if they redouble their efforts.

Even if the Islamic Republic is overthrown, as some hope, the new government in Tehran will surely follow the same nationalist line as its predecessor did. A nuclear Iran is likely to be followed by a nuclear Turkey. Next will come a nuclear Greece, a nuclear Saudi Arabia (assuming the country can survive as a single political unit), and a nuclear Egypt. Welcome to the Brave New World, Mr. Bush.

This is the sort of thing that happens when you confuse a throwaway line in a speech to Congress with the grounds for making war and peace.