Magueijo´┐Żs Faster Than the Speed of Light

Joao Magueijo: Faster Than the Speed of Light

There is an irony that has arisen in the last 10 to 15 years of popular science literature. By popular science, I mean real scientists writing lengthy books about their field of expertise for people that are not scientists. Scientists, like Joao Magueijo, write non-mathematical versions of their scientific work, attempting to simplify the ideas by using grammar school techniques. Therein lies the irony. In trying to dumb down the concepts for a wider audience, they do the very thing they don't want to do: turn their subject matter into science fiction. Or so it would seem to the literate, intelligent target to whom they address themselves.This guy is the worst of the lot. In his book, Faster Than the Speed of Light, when he came to an area of physics that requires knowledge of differential calculus or more; he inserts the phrase it can be shown thatthen he states whatever it is that he's trying to explain. This little catch phrase, reminds me of the mumbo-jumbo I heard so often in episodes of the Star Trek TV series, where a character would say something of this sort: it's some kinda beta radiation burst coming from the forward weapons array. Therefore, they can't go to warp 7, right? Oh boy, no wonder, that's so simple, Yeah Captain Picard those beta or tachyon radiation bursts, yeah.. Doesn't that some kinda just make you crack up? There is a variant it's some sorta In fact, here's a test you can perform any time you watch a sci-fi TV show. Count the times they preface an event, that can't be explained without reference to a real scientific concept with the phrase some kinda, some sorta. Actually this isn't restricted to TV sci-fi shows, every sci-fi movie I've ever seen does it too. Anyway, enough trashing popular culture. let's rake Dr. Magueijo over the coals now!

Magueijo is worst than a sci-fi flick or TV program. They insult your intelligence doubtless to say. But, this guy goes one step further. He is an egomaniac. The title of this work should be Faster Than the Speed of Light: or how one bad mammer-jammer, Joao Magueijo, takes on the entire British science establishment beats the bewilkers out of it, and in the process, makes some of the most intellectually stimulating ideas clearer to the little minds of non-scientific people. This book is more about this childish man and his personal maladjustments, than real physics. Well, maybe not that bad, he does eventually get to his new idea. But, let me tell you it takes some time and whining, complaining, and insulting everybody and their brother for him to do it. About half of this book traces out his career in physics and reads like a romance novel with our dear Joao at its center. It is somewhat scatological too. I don't how many times I read Johnny refer this or that shit. Maybe that is excusable, since English is his second language as Portuguese is mine. I imagine he considers himself an iconoclast with an unconventional style. Okay, I can dig that. But, what is unforgivable is the tone of his writing. He pens himself as if his audience didn't go beyond the 5th grade. Can you believe that he actually felt his audience couldn't grasp a concept so simple as scientific notation? No! I'm not kidding. Whenever he wanted to express a large number, he'd say something like that's an X followed by 30 zeros.

There are few authors that would make me slam a book shut and say: I can't read anymore this stuff. Hitler's Mein Kampf is one example. And points of this book would be another. I actually think the idea the book is attempting to portray is exciting for those within the field and outside of it. Perhaps Magueijo is unaware that his style is demeaning to readers? If so, it's no excuse.

He's not alone in this; many physicists seem to think their art is inscrutable. How else could anyone write some of the stuff this guy writes? He keeps saying throughout the book, if I try to explain, so-n-so without a mathematical treatment I must do such-n-such. As if everybody reading his book is a math moron!

There have been others with varying degrees of respect for their audience.Frank Tipler wrote The Physics of Immortality, which does not condescend, but simply puts the mathematical treatment of his ideas in an appendix.A smart idea Frankie baby, and a very considerate way of recognizing your audience is not composed of intellectual dimwits. John Barrow wrote several popular science works, a great one was Pi in The Sky, which avoids a deep mathematical treatment, but contained reference materials for those interested. His collaboration with the aforementioned Dr. Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is almost the exact opposite of the Magueijo book. It is chock-full of mathematical formulae, enough bibliographic references to fill another book and footnotes galore. This work not only respects the reader's intelligence, but encourages anyone perusing it to investigate its thesis. Great job Messrs Barrow and Tipler! It's also almost 700 pages long, so be prepared for some serious page turning if you tackle it. Paul Davies wrote God and the New Physics and The Edge of Infinity , and both are excellent works intended for laymen. He refers interested readers to the sources when he explains things like general and special relativity .

Do you know, there is not one technical bibliographic reference in this entire book! I couldn't help but wonder, who the hell this guy thought he was?Do you remember that the tennis officials called John McEnroe Superbrat during his tennis career? Yes you guessed it this guy should be called Physiebrat for his petulant tirades about his personal struggles with the British science establishment.


The world of physics according to our hero Johnny is chock-full of mean old guys that don't want him to get a fair shake. I'm sure there is some truth to his complaints, but God does it read like a spoiled child not getting his way. Everybody in the administrative bureaucracy and physics departments at the illustrious institutions of Cambridge and later Imperial College were either incompetents or aging inferior physicists out to hold good ol' Joao back or derail him, or do the one-two knock-out on'em, or just plain burden our extremely busy Joao with so much worthless paperwork that he could never get to his beautiful physics for God sakes! Didn't these jerks understand that? Not to mention they didn't pay enough! Maybe he should've told them: Look that's an X followed by 30 zeros. Now will ya let this paper get published Mr. Referee guy, now huh, nowwwwww! (whine whine with an increasing intonation)?After all he seems to think it works for readers.

  To give you a taste of the condescension this vain writer regularly shows his readers here is a passage where he is explaining why General Relativity and the theory of Quantum Gravity are incompatible. He's already referred to Ep, Plank energy constant, Lp, Planck length and tp, Planck time interval. These constants set the condition in the early genesis of the universe, whereby any knowledge before them is inaccessible.Now, here is how Mr. Magueijo explains it calling upon a grammar school model he'd used earlier in the book. A model, by the way, he attributes to one of Einstein's dreams.

But then we notice a glaring contradiction. Suppose a farmer sees a cow grazing in the fields. The cow is much larger than Lp, so the farmer can rest safe in the knowledge that his cow is uncluttered by quantum gravity hang-ups. But now Cornelia zips past in her usual mad stampede, very close to the speed of light. Cornelia conversely sees the grazing cow moving very fast with respect to her, and therefore sees her contracted in the direction of motion as predicted by special relativity. If she is moving fast enough, Cornelia may see the grazing cow contracted to a length smaller than Lp---and so conclude that she is afflicted by quantum gravitational fever, whatever that might be. Cornelia would not be altogether surprised if she saw the grazing cow start tap dancing, lap dancing, or whatever quantum gravity might cause cows to do.


This kind of kid's book prose he uses repeatedly. Why not have a few verses of Old McDonald to go with this little passage? It's writing like this that makes this book so distasteful to read. There is no need to spoon-feed mathematical concepts to a non-professional audience. Why can't he see this? But, wait hold everything. Would you believe it, on page 252, Joao actually deigned to show us a simple algebraic formula. It's the VSL equivalent of the only equation he ever shows us, e.g. E=mc2. This equation by his own admission is so well known (and simple) he couldn't avoid it. But to show another one, now that's a first for him. And the equation contains a compound fraction too! He agonizes about showing it to us like he might be committing a mortal sin. Hence, even though this is an appalling abuse of mathematics for a book of this type, etc. And he then does the unthinkable. Here it is. Cover your eyes if you're weak of heart. E=mc2/1 + mc2/Ep. Did you get that? A book of this type.What does he mean by that?Does he mean it's the scientific version of Physics for Dummies?


Anyway, what is VSL? I thought you'd never ask. But, I'm not going explain that, you must read Mr. Magueijo's book for that.Oh. Wel lOkay. Here is it is in a nutshell.


It's a way to solve the Horizon problem without reference to the inflation theory of the universe's origin. It posits that light was much faster than it is now in the early universe, but as the universe expanded (I mean the space itself expanded) it slowed down to its present speed. It requires that some very basic laws of physics be violated. For instance the law of Matter Conservation is out the window. In VSL we get back to that old concept of the Steady State universe in which matter is created and destroyed. He makes what I think is an unfounded case that VSL could actually allow space travel without time-space dilation effects and THAT really is new. The mathematics involves some group theory concepts. And it goes without saying, he simply says he pops values in the VSL equations (along with a little string theory for non-commutative groups for sure) and the result emerges. The idea is that c is a local phenomenon as opposed to the value universally. So for Lorentz invariance to generate these time-space dilations you have to be close to the local value. This means if VSL is true, the space traveler would never be close to the expanded value of c in the vicinity he travels, but very close the old value. The old value is much, much lower than the VSL value and thus no time dilation. There are other strange casualties too. Oh, don't let me tell you, read his book, even if it might rub you the wrong way throughout most of it.

To sum it up, Joao Magueijo is a brilliant physicist, but horribly egotistical writer that will offend and disengage many of his readers. This is unfortunate, as the idea that he finally explains is fresh and new. It could be the next revolution in physics. It could be another stab in the wrong direction. Though, it has the ring of truth. If anything in cosmological physics can be said to be 'true'. It is still on the tentative shelf.

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Robleh Wais 8/13/03