Joao Magueijo: Frontier Cosmology

April 24th, 2003 | Category: Interviews

Joao MagueijoMy friend and colleague Brandon Pierce did this interview for our old haunt,

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” — Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is about as iconic as they come. His image conjures unparalleled respect within his discipline, and arguably, within the scientific community as a whole. He is the father of relativity, and many of his most innovative and radical ideas are now established dogma and have been for nearly 100 years.

Likewise, Joao Magueijo has radical ideas, but his ideas intend to turn that Einsteinian dogma on its head. Marueijo is trying to pick apart one of Einstein’s most impenetrable tenets, the constancy of the speed of light. This idea of a constant speed (about 3×106 meters/second) is familiar to anyone who is remotely acquainted with modern physics. It is known as the universal speed limit. Nothing can, has, or ever will travel faster than light.

Magueijo doesn’t buy it. His VSL (Varying Speed of Light) presupposes a speed of light that can be energy or time-space dependent. Before you declare that he’s out of his mind, understand that this man received his doctorate from Cambridge, has been a faculty member at Princeton and Cambridge, and is currently a professor at Imperial College, London. He’s a mainstream scientist whose mind is beginning to wander.

In his fist book, Faster than the Speed of Light, Magueijo leads laymen readers into the abstract realm of theoretical physics, with more flair and energy than Sir Hawking could ever muster. Leaning on several well known, as well as obscure, thinkers, Magueijo carefully builds the foundations for a discussion of Big Bang cosmology, and then segues into the second half of the book, which is devoted to VSL theory.

VSL purposes to solve the problems at which all cosmologists are forever scratching: those inscrutable conceptual puzzles that surround the Big Bang. Currently many of these problems have no widely accepted solutions. Attacking these conundrums with VSL, Magueijo shakes the foundations of the physics community, while pissing off many of his fellow scientists.

No doubt Magueijo pissed off a few more people by writing this book. Within are the details of his relationships with collaborators and opponents, which expose the raw scientific process, the people he loathes and adores, his qualms with academia, and his somewhat appealing un-abandoned pompousness. Vulgarities and playful anecdotes are sprinkled throughout. They feel forced and awkward at times, but make for an overall entertaining read.

Ultimately, the validity and soundness of his ideas are beside the point. This book embraces the process. Its message is attacking difficult problems, asking bold questions, and searching out unexplored possibilities. It’s this type of fresh and creative thinking that keeps science exciting and unpredictable. His mantra reads something like, “try new ideas, screw up, try again.”

And this is exactly how science progresses. Its not some linear, stepwise process, steadily marching forward. That’s how it’s made to appears in the textbooks. In reality, it’s experimentation and exploration. It’s throwing around ideas, destroying old theories, salvaging the useful parts, and rebuilding. It’s bouncing ideas off your peers, collaborating, in a process that can be just as painful as productive. This documentary truly testifies to Kuhn’s ideas of scientific revolution.

So, keep in mind that Einstein has been wrong before. Hubble succeeded in disproving Einstein when asserting that Einstein’s static universe was actually rapidly expanding. Hubble had a crucial weapon that Magueijo lacks thus far: convincing empirical evidence. Hubble actually observed this expansionary movement by measuring light from distant galaxies. Until this day arrives for Magueijo, all is speculation.

Brandon Pierce: In Faster than the Speed of Light, VSL Theory seems to evolve from chapter to chapter. Can update us as to its current state and (briefly) outline some basic ideas?

Joao Magueijo: Broadly speaking there are theories where the speed of light depends on its energy (color) and others where it depends on space-time — and then you could mix the two. The former may explain why we see cosmic rays above a certain energy, in contradiction with the predictions of relativity The latter explain the observations of variation in the “fine structure constant'” in “old'” light. Experiments seem to point to a mixture of the two types of effects. But it’s early days….

BP: With so many mysteries surrounding the mechanics of Big Bang–from the horizon problem, to its odd, short-lived physical laws–do you ever find yourself questioning the theory itself?

JM: Of course! You always question everything, particularly the new theory you are proposing.

BP: The conflict between VSL and more traditional theory (inflation) hints at what TS Kuhn would call a paradigm crisis, where many versions of a theory proliferate. Is the puzzle-solving ability of the theory of inflation breaking down? Are any cosmologists proposing any other alternatives to an inflationary universe (aside from VSL)?

JM: Inflation was a good start. But it feels forceful, and there are indeed problems it does not solve. There are more alternatives to inflation beside VSL, e.g. the ekpyrotic universe of Turok and Steinhardt.

BP: Ideas seem to present themselves to you while you are in strange situations or altered mental states. Do you need to break outside of your normal environment to think in un-ordinary ways?

JM: Thinking can be lateral or “sweaty”. For the latter you’re better off in an office and following a routine but for the former you have to be “out of your mind”, so to speak. So although I recognize the merits of hard work, I find that my work goes stale if I don’t go off wandering around the world every few weeks. My friends think I’m a gipsy, but that’s when I do “part 1” of my best work.

BP: You have learned to retain a certain respect for your predecessors and for history, reducing the shock value of your ideas (ie. tossing out certain Einsteinian concepts and then deciding to account for them). Is this practice aimed to engage your skeptical colleagues, or did the historical foundations emerge as a true crux of your theory?

JM: If you go way out of mainstream science you can feel so lost that it’s scary. In the end you need to come back to familiar ground, to leave it again. VSL followed this pendulum effect…

BP: I repeatedly come across philosophers who equate the study of Big Bang cosmology with “appealing to the supernatural”, and this is spawning some sort of reconciliation between science and religion (WIRED, Decemeber, 2002). Are physicists beginning to consult theologians? Do you feel this could be productive?

JM: No, to either question.

BP: You disdain the journal process as well as the red tape and administration associated with science in academia, and you devote a good portion of your book to hating on them. Do you foresee any mitigation?

JM: Yes: close down journals and let scientists communicate via the web alone; and make sure administrators of science do their job instead of just producing redtape (paperpushing is a very descriptive was to put current science policies).

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