Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation

by Joäo Magueijo

(Perseus Publishing) Reading at Powell's City of Books, Fri 7:30 pm, free

Sorry old fogies, but it looks like young radical thinkers are taking over your vaunted institutions. Joäo Magueijo is a 35-year-old anarchist cosmological physicist, who, in his book about the development of his Variable Speed of Light (VSL) Theory, uses the word "shit" six times, and the word "fuck" twice. There are single instances of each of the following words or phrases: "blow-job," "masturbation," "primordial fart," "motherfucker," and "cosmic pubes."

Magueijo tells us that he first conceived his theory when he was totally hungover, and admits that some of his ideas came to him during pot-smoking sessions with a colleague at a bar in Notting Hill, London. If not for the fact that Magueijo happens to be a brilliant scientist who developed a revolutionary new theory about the behavior of the universe, he'd just be one of the guys.

VSL negates one of the most basic assumptions upon which all of modern physics is built: that the speed of light, "c," is constant. As Magueijo puts it, the invariability of "c" is "woven into the very fabric of physics." So VSL will have extremely far-reaching effects. How far? Ever heard of E = mc2? To put the import of VSL to the physics community into perspective, imagine your dad on his deathbed confessing that your mom is not your biological parent, but that he raped your aunt and you are their bastard child. It's sort of like that times a million.

One of the great strengths of the book is the incredibly clear language it uses to explain VSL and the theories it hopes to replace. But Magueijo has an additional motive. By telling of the battles he fought to have his ideas accepted by the scientific community, he exposes that community for what it is: an ineffective, out-of-date, old boy network of imbeciles. He attacks the bureaucracy of academic institutions, refereed science journals (he refers to one esteemed physics editor as "a first-class moron"), and conservative older researchers who contribute nothing to their students' research but their own venerable names. As Magueijo ages, he swears he will avoid this fate. We can only hope. AARON BEAM