Schneller als die Lichtgeschindigkeit.
ISBN: 3-570-00580-1 Bertelsmann, 2003
A talent theoretical physicist and cosmologist from the younger generation of London's Imperial College professors has put pen to paper for a popular readership, not only sketching his concepts of cosmology, but regailing us with a catalogue of moans and gripes about an academic system that seems to have larded him with privileges and opportunities. This would be amusing, were it not for the dismal coincidence that the Portuguese scientist Joao Magueijo's career took off in an era of retreat from theoretical science in UK universities, marked above all by the closure of all but a handful of departments of physics.
As a doctoral student in Cambridge, Magueijo began to tussle with the notion that the speed of light in a vacuum, the 'c' of Einstein's famous equation E=mc², might vary, especially in the extraordinary conditions of the universe shortly after the 'Big Bang', 'inflation'. In support of his VSL (Variable Speed of Light) theory, by likening the events of the 'big bang' to a phase transition in supercooled material, he argues eloquently for the proposition that 'c' should at least be considered a constant, enabling a range of mathematically interesting ideas to be worked through. Maguerijo then provides us with an account of his academic tour of duty, with a variety of collaborators and colleagues, slowly revealing that his work, rather than being particularly unusual, is one model among literally hundreds of conflicting accounts of the early universe.
'Faster than the Speed of Light' then fails to take the reader closer to the points of contention arising within these theoretical conflicts. To a lay reader such as your reviewer, Magueijo's book never quite becomes informative about the core of his work. He can dismiss the fractal theorists in a paragraph or two and complains about the experimentally orientated physicists, but how good is his thinking? Should we be impressed? Should we even be surprised? From this book, it is impossible to judge.
As a piece of popular science, there are two serious drawbacks that seem typical of the genre. Firstly the 'Einstein' complex, where the mantle of greatness looms in the shadows of scientists' writing and secondly the publishing house taboo on mathematics and formulae that are the working physicist's stock in trade. Is it beyond the wit of publishers to incorporate a cd-rom with examples of the work, animated graphics, or multimedia, so some of the contrasting claims of different theories can be revealed visually, or in graphics designed to demonstrate their similarities and contrasts. Magueijo himself says that aspects of Einstein's early work were notationally difficult to understand and only became clear to him as an undergraduate when he covered the same issues with accepted mathematical terms and symbols. Surely, it is clear that the non-specialist deserves a similar re-representation in a comprehensible form, particularly for comparative purposes, which nevertheless extend beyond descriptive writing.
Not for the frist time reading a book of popular science, this reader was left wondering about the kinds of proofs that are accepted in this realm of speculation. Among Magueijo's predecessors at Imperial College was David Boehm, who was celebrated for encouraging scientists to make their work accessible to society. In writing for the lay reader, Magueijo has sought to continue that tradition and in the manner in which small slivers of thought leak through despite the drawbacks, perhaps he has succeeded. This reader was struck by one of the simplest comments in the whole book.
For some unclear reason, I had always assumed that galaxies, like stars were visible only as pinpoints of light from earth, when indeed they are visible at all. Describing the earliest galactic photographs of the 20th century, Magueijo tells us that the nearest galaxies are invisible only because of their faintness and were they bright enough to be seen they would appear as structures as large as the sun, or the moon in the sky. Imagining the night sky with more sensitive eyes to set the glow of spiral arms alongside the moon, suddenly, the universe seemed a smaller place.
In a similar vein, perhaps Magueijo himself should dwell a little longer on the social history of Notting Hill. He obviously likes the district he describes as a culturally diverse product of post-war social urban development, while failing to recognise it as a location for serious riots first as a consequence of racism, poverty and rackmanism, then as a sad reply to the failures of Thatcherism and the English snobberies he so rightly derides.