Click here for K.S. Srinivas' review of Faster Than the Speed of Light
Dr. Joao Magueijo undoubtedly aimed this book at readers like this reviewer, people scientifically literate and interested in learning, if also neither mathematical nor involved in the specialty covered. Faster Than the Speed of Light should attract the large lay audience now reading discursive, simplified books by professors about abstruse subjects such as DNA, the mind, and the universe. It is a gracefully written story that offers pleasures beyond the intricacies of the science it advances.
Dr. Magueijo is a professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London, who studied at Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, and Princeton. He concerns himself with the basic nature of physical reality, but his book is a human account of trying to reach understanding.
The experimental branch of physics has seemed moribund since the Congressional slaughter of the Super Collider a few years ago. Progress appeared no longer possible without reproducing the energies of the very early universe. The politicians decided that wasn’t affordable. This cancellation also dampened theoretical work involving the very small, but not the very large: it didn’t stop “cosmologists". In that latter field, new devices, such as scientific satellites (optical, e.g. the Hubble, X-ray, and IR), permit if not experiments, then observations that infuse scientific understandings.
Magueijo is a cosmologist. Further, he is daring. He has had the chutzpah to construct the “speculation” that, in the early universe, light’s velocity varied. This violates Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. That iconic scientist thought light always has a fixed speed relative to any observer. Magueijo’s new construct is apparently internally consistent and answers intellectual problems about the expansion of the universe after the “Big Bang” as well as does its older competitor for an explanation called “inflation".
The latter theory was also invented by a young tiger of a theoretician but does not cock a snoot at Einstein. Dr. Alan Guth published an account of his own experience of conceiving his idea and then selling it in The Inflationary Universe (Addison Wesley, 1997). It is similarly charming. He was met with raves rather than brickbats, however.
Much of the attractiveness of Magueijo’s book is in the personal story he tells of fighting fellow physicists, of the forming and breaking of alliances, and of the emotional ups and downs that accompany heresy in science. University administrators and the editors of scientific journals receive bad marks, but perhaps all is well that ends well. The doctor reports that his profession now explores the explanations and predictions stemming from his dish-breaking theory.
His problem is experimental proof. A lack of confirmation is also inflation’s problem, of course. The basic issue of modern physics is the recent paralysis of experimentation. Much of theoretical work seems gossamer, theological-like speculations. Are particles made of strings, loops, or membranes? Are there four dimensions, or up to twenty-one? Can gravity be quantum-ized and integrated with particle physics? Will “vacuum energy” empty the universe, grow more and more powerful, and finally cause another Big Bang? And now VSL (Variable Speed of Light) versus inflation. How to decide?
Dr. Magueijo reviews how many of these puzzles interact with his theory. In regard to VSL, he hopes that finer observations of ancient radiation with advanced sensors will show higher light speed when the universe was hotter and smaller. Whether evidence surfaces or not, he promises to press on with further speculations.
Faster Than the Speed of Light is intellectually exciting and emotionally uplifting. Joao Magueio’s call for continued theoretical bravery should remind his readers to support the science that is central to our civilization. We must stimulate the politicians to support science. If we do, and succeed, physicists will gradually bring clarity.