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Copyright

Title: Faster Than the Speed of Light
Author: Joćo Magueijo
Publisher: Perseus
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0738205250
Pages: 277
Price: $26.00
Rating: 60%

What could be faster than the speed of light? We all know, or at least have been taught, that nothing can go faster than this constant, which is 300,000 kilometers per second. Even Superman was only faster than a speeding bullet… Yet, as the title of this book suggests, the sacrosanct question of this speed being called into doubt has reared its head. 

Theoretical physicist Joćo Magueijo has a crazy idea: that the speed of light can, and has, varied at different times during the life of the universe. His VSL (varying speed of light) theory, first ridiculed by his colleagues, can help explain some of the thorny issues in cosmology. Is he a genius? A charlatan? Both? 

This book is a narrative of the development of this theory. Magueijo begins by presenting some of the basic ideas behind the speed of light and relativity.  These concepts can be difficult to understand, but Magueijo manages to simplify them, and does not go into any more detail than necessary. The first half of the book covers the many major discoveries and theoretical concepts behind modern cosmology; in fact, while it doesn't claim to do so, this book can function very well as a primer for this complex subject. 

The heart of the matter, however, begins when Magueijo starts talking about VSL. This theory began with an epiphany when Magueijo was walking across the playing fields of St. John's College in Cambridge. It arose as a series of questions: "What if, in the early universe, light traveled faster than it does now? How many... riddles would such a possibility solve? And at what price to our ideas about physics?"  

The remainder of the book is as much a travelogue of the author's explorations as it is an explanation of his theory. And this is where it gets sticky. Magueijo has gotten a lot of heat for this book, for his brashness and insolence, and for the way he goes about discussing this theory. For such a young scientist to come up with a unique theory is far from uncommon in science. But the jibes he takes at some of the people he crosses on his path are unnecessary. He says, for example, that Nature, the prestigious journal, "have employed a first-class moron as an editor." He continues, amplifying more his own ridicule than the editor's, by saying, "We are obviously talking about a failed scientist - envy of the penis springs to mind." His rant against this journal, whose editor snubbed him, crystallizes how much the author's ego is at center stage in this book. He's quite young to be settling scores; he has undoubtedly shut far more doors than he has opened. If he turns out to be wrong, he'll have a long, lonely life ahead of him as a scientist. 

So the question remains: is this an interesting book? The author's anger and bitterness, and his inflated ego, overshadow what he presents in this book. The style of the book attempts to turn hard science into the kind of book you can listen to on tape in traffic. I think the publisher's desire to make this book accessible to a large number of people detracts from its overall interest. Frankly, the feeling I get from reading this book is that this man is not someone I would like to share a meal with.  

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.