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).

Further Posting:


  • Hanz Heinrich said:

    This all sound logical to me, to question assumptions made about physical processes as they appear locally; there is no reason to suppose that the laws explaining physics at the local level, say around the solar system, should apply to the same processes happening at a distance of billions of light years from us. What we learn from studying the physical world locally is, at best, limited when extrapolating that knowledge to attempt to explain something about–the “all encompassing”–universe.

  • Robert Kansa said:

    I have just begun reading Jaoa Magueijo’s book, “Faster Than the Speed of Light”. In these early pages I have come to find his brashness and irreverence to be refreshing. It occurred to me, however, that in the realm of theoretical physics such qualities perhaps should be the norm, even if, as Joao allows, it can render one a pariah. In any event, as a member of the laity, I am still trying to digest the concept of parallel universes, wormholes and the idea that, ultimately, all is comprised of miniscule bundles of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions. Who needs Harry Potter when the realities of our universe and, perhaps, others is infinitely stranger than any fantasy existing there.

  • Dr. Chaim Larsen said:

    I find the book to be totally refreshing and interesting. It is very stimulating to thought processes. As a NeuroPhysiologist and Cognitive researcher, there is much that I can apply to my study.

  • Joaquim Varandas said:

    I have not read Joao’s book. I plan on doing it soon, but let me say that there is nothing new here. The most brilliant minds in human history were almost invariably considered pariahs. Even if Joao Magueijo does not prove his theory, I am sure Einstein will be looking down upon him, with a smile on his face, and saying: “ata boy Joao, you tell them”. If we simply agree and cheer science will stagnate.

  • Peter S. said:

    Your Book about VSL is very interant, but i think, that the velocitiy of light is different. We se only lihgt with the same velocitiy. But light is existing in every velocitiy. The light is not the same, when we move. When ist has another velocity, as known, we call it dark material. Wecannot messure more,than we can imagine.

  • Gary Podolner said:

    The Energy Contradiction Conjecture

    1- The first law of Thermodynamics does not allow for
    for the increase of energy in the Universe.
    (Conservation of energy)

    2- The Big Bang/Inflationary Theory of the Universe
    depends on a vast increase of energy in the Universe.

    3- One or the other of the theories must be incorrect.

    4- It would be a false argument to say that the laws
    of Physics are different before and after the
    formation of the Universe.

    A- This is not disprovable and therefore is not a
    scientific theory.

    B- This idea would introduce a more difficult set
    of problems and therefore solves nothing while
    begging the question.

    5- The Big Bang/Inflationary theory has many ad hoc fixes
    and the conjecture is that this is the one that will be
    proven false.

    6- Also, any sophistry regarding “space” not being energy
    is unscientific.

    Gary D. Podolner

    member MAA

    U of C
    Masters Liberal Arts graduate(research: Philosophy of Science)

  • richard lamanna said:

    Is it possible that life is no more than nature’s equal but opposite reaction to the inanimate?

  • richard lamanna said:

    My second theory on life is that it is no more than a byproduct of earths (unique?) environment.

  • john h eblen said:

    without a doubt there exists the possibility that two or more laws of physics can exist in our current cosmological studies (one law that created the big bang and another for all that follows). I also find it hard to believe that the speed of light is somehow a concept which limits velocity. It is only a pause in our scientific understanding.

  • Jose Gonzalez said:

    I am looking forward to reading the book. I think VSL makes absolute sense, specially if one takes into account the laser cooling process used to produce the Bose-Einstain Condensates. It is time that science get kidnapped from an obtuse bunch of self-righteous, self-proclaimed, so-called scientists who haven’t come up with anything new and think they are so smart just because they barely understand what Einstein was talking about.

  • svend said:

    Einstein had to think outside the box to create what he did…
    Therefore, it will take thinking outside the box to progress even further.
    I find it revolting when other scientists question people such as Joao


  • Me said:

    Silly men with silly ideas often referred to as disturbing elements will in time be the ones to discover just how the mind of God works for in them remains a childlike imagination from which the mind of God extends. Rather than judge their ideas based on what you feel is right or wrong, sit back and watch. The outcome might surprise you.

    Just a thought…

  • PFJ said:

    Gary Podolner
    It’s nice of you to set up a boxed argument in which only the things we actually know about at the moment are placed inside. I think if anything Joao is simply asking us to think outside of the box for a moment. As a biologist I see your argument as being similar nutrition arguments. often times arguments are made based on only the nutrients we know about yet there is so much that we don’t know. so basically your model is great if the universe behaved in only ways that we currently know about and can explain. I especially like how you rule out discussions that you just don’t even want to discuss.

  • Avery Carman said:

    Vsl is well sorta right i guess, light having a constant speed is absurd for one reason…there is not vacum anywhere. try and find a place in the universe that is void and ill find something in it. never mind that if velocity affects the rate at wich time move(provided that time is real) the in the early universe moving at the speed it was must have aged slower ?? mmm but that means that light should have moved slower as well if the faster something moves the slower time mover with in in relation a slower moving object ?? mmm so slower velocity means faster time. nah im going with there is no big bang no such thing sorry but one what the hell did all of our stuff bang into well thats easy the rest of the things that make up the universe and two if everytihng that is happening is the result of a previous action that all actions are reactions and if thats true the the big bang is really a reaction to ???? ummmm it never happened its just not true. ill make this simple think of the universe as the oceans everything moving all the time to rest to static anything. the universe is what it is because this is the phase we find it in. after enough energy has moved about and changed state it will be something eles. maybe thats provided that humans or more to the point life doesnt reorganize everything in it first. HAHA we are the most marvalous force in all creations, we get to choose what we want to do next no reaction but poraction( is proaction a word??) hell im wasting my effort arent I they just dont get is there is no Time not to the universe only to us space time is more like energy space. this sonds mad i know but im right i know it my logic has no flaws time is not a force you can affect or be affected by decay and age are just the elemnts in your body doing what they have to do the fact that your aware of it is the only difference. if only i could explain why the theroys are all muddeled up but ehhh what can i do

  • Mark said:

    Does science become the new religion?

  • Lou Argyres said:

    Falling Into the Future – tsaP eht otnI gnitaotlF

    – a tautological conjecture of dark matter*

    Dark matter appears to account for more than 90 percent of the universe. Where do you put all of that stuff?

    Dark matter is located in the one place we cannot see, the future.

    I call this the “Subprime Universe” since there is presently no explanation for why the observable universe’s largest structures, galaxies and clusters, behave as if they were good for the deficit mass or where it should come from.**

    Time has a beginning and a direction.

    The universe has reached a portion of its age.

    Subprime conjecture states that we directly see only the portion of matter comprising the past.

    Space has a delta; so does mass (perhaps big G, formerly a constant, is changing).

    We see photons from the past. We experience gravitation from the future.

    We don’t detect the potential gravity of objects over discreet relativistic distances and times, e.g., observations of stellar objects.

    We do detect the presence in large structures comprising billions of objects that have and will be around for a long time.

    This leads to the conclusion that time is the delta of mass.

    * The author is a middle-aged crackpot who only got as far as calculus because of distraction, laziness and limited talent (not necessarily in that order). To be peer-reviewed before publication by the Ponds & Fleishman Institute for Crackpot Science

    ** Other suggestions call for 1) sneaky so-called MACHOs that pusillanimously refuse to submit to closer inspection, and 2) WIMPs to be added to the wearying collection of nasty weird particles.

  • mike f said:

    subprime conjecture? Sounds like a new type of mortgage. What a crackpot!

  • Randy Hoff said:

    Dated: May 14, 2008

    I am new to all these theories, but I have been gestitating on these and other topics of interest. I am toying with idea that our current theories of the origin of the universe and the nature of physics is one in the same problem. And I think the answer lies in better understanding of what space is. As I think and look into the matter space is just not a void with nothing in it, but space has texture and shape to it. And like any other material from which that fabric is made from will determine its “properties” or physics. Thus I think look into not just the concept of the entrophy of energy but more importantly the entrophy of space – primordial space. Joao Magueijo’s ideas are step in the right direction that will lead to that ultimate equation that solves the riddle of the universe and unites all the laws of nature in one. That will lead to incredible discoveries and quantum leaps in science and technology. But will we have the morals and ethics to use just knowledge wisely and justly and not just for power and gain. The fate of mankind and future of civilization may very well depend upon what choice we make individually and collectively.


  • Umar said:

    I totally agree with Joao—-But the clues you are looking for are hidden in GOA—If ya know what that means–

  • billc said:

    spacetime is is any kind of radiation,including visible light.or is redshift wrong?. why shouldnt gravity suffer similar consequences? the universe is elastic. the speed of light will drop as the universe grows. the pull of gravity does the same. and matter becomes a smaller percentage as the volume it occupies as space expands(stretches)dark matters arse….billc-chevrolet mechanic and lay pissicist

  • Ray Criddle said:

    Could VSL contribute to the Pioneer Anomaly ??? Good work Joao.

  • Denver Davis said:

    At the age of 65, I’m still trying to wrap my head around Einstein. Digesting Magueijo throws another wild card in the deck. I gave up, long ago, trying to make sense of theoretical physics. Magueijo says that the fine print will tell you that it is, in fact, mostly theory. My ancient BSEE did not prepare me to deal with very much theory. It is, however, a look at some, long overdue, fresh thought. My wife says that its difficult to get me “fired up”, but Magueijo did.
    ‘nuf sed
    Denver Davis

  • Michael said:

    Just getting to sit down and take a read with the book. Just hope it gives apt credit to Moffat which your TV show failed miserably to do.

  • Steven Turner said:

    I don’t know where to start, but I need to start somewhere, thus would you take the time to read this? My name is Steven Turner, and I am a physicist in my own right. I started writing about psychology when I was thirteen years old and continued until I was twenty-two. I had not had a teacher of this, so I did all my examinations alone. When I was about twenty-three, my mind began changing focus towards the way our universe works. Again having no teacher, I had to figure it out alone. I wanted to determine how our atom works. I began testing personal theories about simple mathematical codes that the universe could use. Instead of trying to actually see what was going on in an atom, I tried to establish the only possible code that an atom could operate with. This seemed easier for I had no access to a collider, which I had no idea even existed at the time. I spent roughly three years figuring out a code that worked easily, simply, and well. Once I got this done, I signed up for a few classes at a college in order to slightly test my theories. I took a simple algebra class and a psychology class. I tried to show the math teacher some of my work, but not only did he seem to look at me as lesser than him, but he also seemed completely uninterested with my years of work. I suppose I really cant expect more from a teacher that’s just wants to teach his class, and pass no judgment, but I attained multitudes of universal information during attendance of the class. During my psychology class, it was as if I were at home, seeing things I had never noticed before. Within a few classes I noticed that the makeup of the mind was tightly comparable to the composure of the atom. I began connecting the known knowledge of psychology, with my theories of what I now call atomics, or universal mathematics. Soon I had begun creating something I would like to introduce to the world of science, as ((Psychological Atomics)). I believe I can explain how our minds follow the exact nature of atomic signatures, signals, transfers, disturbances, equations, and much more. I may not be a professional in the eyes of acknowledged world scientists, but I do have a great deal of heart for this. I believe that the universe is so simple that it may be easy to decipher its mechanisms by comparing everything we see around us. Mathematics is universal and associates with every natural world existence. Instead of just breaking the atom down I went straight for what I like to call the ((Bottom)). After briefly reading into some reports, I found that many call the bottom, the ((God particle)). I am trying to crack the atom code in a mobile home, within a small town of Arizona. I CAN DO IT!! All I need is a little time with professionals that I don’t know how to get in touch with. I have put atomics into algebraic and geometric formats and although I don’t have this code complete, I think I am closer than I should be. I can easily explain why light travels faster than sound, and why we don’t age while traveling at the speed of light, in a way no one understands. Time measurement is easy to define and calculate in its smallest increment with this theory. I can make it complex enough to evade many, or easy enough for a grade school student to understand. I have over five hundred pages of journalism and diagrams to share with the scientific world, and whether or not it can ever be taken seriously, I would like to share it with someone. It doesn’t matter who figures these things out, it only matters that we do. I believe that I have a good idea of what happened seven steps before the Big Bang, why there is more dark matter than matter, and what the smallest increment of matter is. I watched a man on the science channel talk about his theory that light use to travel faster at one point, and I believe I can fill in the blanks.

    A friend

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Doesn’t this guy have his own website by now?

    Just sayin’…

  • Keith Moseley said:

    I’ve just seen Joao Magueijo’s big bang theory on the Discovery chanel, I’ve no scientific degrees or anything but thought his varying speed of light was interesting, light travels at a constant in a vaccum, space is a vaccum but is it empty and can we make a vaccum that is empty?. I don’t think we can, space now is polluted with all kind of rays and stuff that could slow light down, would the very early universe be as polluted as it now is?, if it was less polluted maybe light was faster.

    Just my two penneth.

    Keith Moseley


  • Robert Browning said:

    Big Bang and Black Holes.
    Black holes are shown as a vortex. Science fiction not science fact. They are an almost empty sphere in space and there are only two ways of knowing they exist. Firstly by thier gravitational efect on stars in thier vicinity,and from this we can calculate thier mass. Secondly,as a star is “consumed” it leaves a plume of light,possibly the result of atoms being torn apart similar to an atomic bomb.Despite the science fiction view this occurs very rarely and black holes are,for majority of the time totaly invisible.Black holes will never be seen. Even from a distance that particular area of space would appear to be full of stars.The reason for this is explained in Einstein,s Theory Of General Relativity where massive gravity bends lighe so as to make stars behind such force to appear as if the black hole was never there. Also Gravitational Lensing would even make it appear crowded as we would see several images of a single star behind the black hole appear in front of it.
    It was from a black hole that all universal matter came at moment of the BIG BANG, and Prof. Magueijo has calculated the exact time of that. What he didn,t take into account was gravity.We know gravity in a black hole is so great it tears even atoms apart and draws matter in at excess of light speed, and the escape velocity by necessity has therefore to be greater than light speed. Light and time can,t exist seperately. Inside the Schwartschild Radius of a black hole we know neither exist. When the big bang occured there was a minute gap in time from the explosion to when matter slowed to light speed. It was this gap that Prof.Magueijo mistakenly took to be a period of “Variable Light Speed.”
    This was his only mistake as his calculations match perfectly with the beginning of both time and light.
    Robert L.Browning.