A physicist leaps the limits of light

February 09, 2003|By Michael Stroh | By Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Faster Than the Speed of Light, by Joao Magueijo. 288 pages. Perseus Publishing. $26.

In 1905 Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity, and thus was born one of the most famous and influential formulas in the history of science: The story Joao Magueijo tells in his insightful new book concerns the "c" of Einstein's equation, the symbol for the speed of light, and how just maybe the great physicist got it wrong.

"If there's one thing every schoolboy knows about Einstein and his theory of relativity, it is that the speed of light in a vacuum" -- 186,000 miles per second for those who haven't cracked a textbook recently -- "is constant." More than that, Einstein's theory implies that light is bound by a universal speed limit that nothing in nature can surpass.

But a few years ago while at Cambridge University working on his doctorate in theoretical physics, Magueijo was strolling across the campus nursing a hangover when a heretical notion struck him: What if the universal speed limit is not inviolable and light actually traveled faster in the early moments of the universe than it does today? If that were true, he realized, it might tie together some long-standing and very annoying loose ends in the Big Bang theory, the keystone of modern cosmology.

Magueijo, now a 35-year-old lecturer at Imperial College in London, also quickly realized that if he told anybody about his idea, it would probably mean career suicide, even for someone with solid credentials. Sure enough, when word of his variable speed of light -- VSL -- theory did get around, some physicists snickered that the acronym actually stood for "Very Silly."

These are the kinds of frank admissions that set Magueijo's book apart from others in the popular science genre, where it's rare to find working scientists saying anything that could jeopardize their grant prospects or chances of obtaining academic tenure.

Magueijo, perhaps realizing that his VSL theory is considered so outlandish that he has little to lose anyway, followed in the footsteps of biologist James Watson and his The Double Helix, writing an occasionally gossipy insider's account of the petty jealousies, behind-the-scenes politics and blatant biases that can play just as important and influential a role in how discoveries are made as the scientific method itself.

Magueijo spends plenty of time -- most of the book, actually -- on real science, since understanding why VSL is such a simultaneously oddball and potentially insightful idea requires a working knowledge of many fundamental concepts of modern physics and cosmology. Unlike many scientists turned popular science writers, Magueijo also turns out to be a surprisingly engaging and occasionally even artful teacher.

But it's the insight into what goes on behind closed laboratory doors that proves as interesting and educational as the science itself. And Magueijo, a self-described iconoclast, doesn't shy away from saying what he thinks. At one point, while discussing the biases influential journals often have against unorthodox ideas, he describes an editor at Nature as "a first class moron."

While you can't help admire Magueijo's guts and honesty, its also fun to wonder whether he will ever likely be published in that prestigious British journal during his career. In the end, Magueijo's act of professional suicide may not have been proposing VSL but writing this book. But we're better off that he did.

Michael Stroh has covered science and technology for The Sun since 1998. He began writing about the subject at Science News in 1992. He also worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

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