News

Why do scientists say 137 is the most important number?

Theoretical physicists have deemed the number 137 or, more specifically, 1/137, the most important number in the world.

Did you know that some numbers are more perfect than others? Revered physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) famously thought believed the number 137, or 1/137.03599913, to be exact, was it.

The number, or alpha α, is defined as a fine structure constant. While speaking with the Scared Geometry Academy, Feynman explained the number as: “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man”.

Richard Feynman
Credit: BBC

For reputable physicists alike, the number is both incredibly mysterious and unbelievably important. What could be seen as a seemingly random, dimensionless number, actually holds the secret to life itself.

While it has many names, it’s officially called the pure number. The one that doesn’t need any units.

Basically, 137 is the number derived when you combine several fundamental constants of nature.

It combines all three of nature’s fundamental constants – the speed of light, the electric charge carried by one electron, and Planck’s constant. It’s that 137 equals this seemingly impossible equation that has allured and captivated physicians all over the world.

So much so that it could even be used to communicate with aliens. Physicist Laurence Eaves, a professor at the University of Nottingham, thinks 137 would be what you’d signal to the aliens to indicate that we have some measure of mastery over our planet and understand basic quantum mechanics.

The aliens would then respond as they should know the number as well, especially if they’ve developed advanced sciences. Like travelling to different planets and galaxies!

While 137 has changed so slightly over the last 6 billion years, it will keep evolving through the ageing of our planet and civilisation, itself.

But why this number? Since the 1880s there have been numerous studies to come up with a Grand Unified Theory so that it would incorporate the constant. Over 140 years later, not one theory has been successful.

I’m no mathematician or physicist but after learning about the number 137, I feel like Jim Carey was losing his mind over the wrong number in the film The Number 23.