FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT
The story of a scientific speculation
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).
João Magueijo is a young physicist who has been bold enough to challenge one of the central dogmas of modern physics: the constancy of the speed of light, enshrined in Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. In this exceptionally readable account he tells how he came to conceive of his radical idea and where it has led him in terms of his friendships and his career.
Magueijo's hypothesis is intended as an alternative to the theory of inflation, proposed by Alan Guth, which is supposed to explain the early expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. Guth's theory is widely accepted in the USA but British cosmologists are apparently less enthusiastic. Magueijo's idea is that light travelled faster in the early universe than it does today. This suggestion is so outrageously far outside the mainstream that when Magueijo mentioned it to other physicists he was generally met either with outright rejection or with embarrassment. He is therefore at pains to assure us that he is far from a crank; he is a bona fide member of the physics community, being currently a reader at Imperial College in London with a distinguished track record. The reason he favours his controversial idea is that it provides a good solution to some of the cosmological problems of the early universe. The underlying concepts needed to understand these questions are well described in the first part of the book.
Whether Magueijo has any chance of being right is something that only specialists in cosmology are in a position to pronounce on, though he claims that his theory is increasingly gaining acceptance. Whatever the eventual outcome may be, however, the book is worth reading for the insight it gives into the scientific process considered as a human activity. This emerges in the largely narrative second part of the book. If anyone still believes that science is a cold dispassionate affair, remote from ordinary human concerns, Magueijo's account will show them their error. There is no shortage of emotional involvement here, as we learn not just what the theory means at an intellectual level but how its development has affected Magueijo's own career and that of his collaborators. As he puts it, "science is above all a rewarding human experience, perhaps the purest one on offer in a world less than perfect."
7 April 2004
%T Faster Than The Speed Of Light
%S The story of a scientific speculation
%A João Magueijo
%I Arrow Books
%G ISBN 0-099-42808-3
%P 275 pp