Physical constant

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A 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.

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Dimensional and dimensionless physical constants

Whereas the physical quantity indicated by any physical constants do not depend on the unit system used to express the quantity, the numerical values of dimensionful physical constants do depend on the unit used. Therefore, these numerical values (such as 299,792,458 for the constant speed of light c expressed in units of meters per second) are not values that a theory of physics can be expected to predict.

Because their units cancel, ratios of like-dimensioned physical constants do not depend on unit systems in this way, so they are pure dimensionless numbers whose values a future theory of physics could conceivably hope to predict. Additionally, all equations describing laws of physics can be expressed without dimensional physical constants via a process known as nondimensionalisation, but the dimensionless constants will remain. Thus, theoretical physicists tend to regard these dimensionless quantities as fundamental physical constants.

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