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New theory on light weighs heavily on scientists

A brash young theoretical physicist claims Einstein was wrong

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At the heart of Einstein's elegant equation, E=mc2, is the constant speed of light. Indeed, the mind-warping special theory of relativity allows time and space to bend, but light, Einstein insisted, must remain traveling at 186,000 miles per second, throughout the universe, for all observers.

"Whoa!" cries João Magueijo, a young theoretical physicist. This iconoclastic professor at the Imperial College in London has the courage, or some may say the audacity, to challenge that key component of Einstein's deeply ingrained work.

In short, Magueijo claims that some of the most complex mysteries about the origin of the universe can be solved if we consider that light may have traveled much faster at the Big Bang than it does now. In other words, the speed of light is variable.

Many cosmologists today adhere to the idea of "inflation," which speculates that the young universe expanded "unimaginably faster than it does today." But inflation, proposed by MIT physicist Alan Guth in the late 1970s, was never widely adopted by the British theoretical physics community. And Magueijo claims that as an answer to various "cosmological problems ... inflation had won by default." This propelled him to think about another solution.

"I was into my second year as a fellow of St. John's College," he writes, "when one day the answer seemed to drop from the sky. It was a miserable rainy morning - typical English weather - and I was walking across the college's sports field ... when I suddenly realized that if you were to break one simple rule of the game, albeit a sacred one, you could solve these problems."

Challenging any popular or long-held theory in science is a risk, and can even end a promising career. That's especially true when the challenge is being made to the work of a great scientist like Albert Einstein. But Magueijo, with help along the way from a handful of other scientists who were open to discussing the variable speed of light (VSL), kept developing his idea.

Their first attempts to publish a technical paper on the subject, however, ran into what Magueijo characterizes as condescension and purely political opposition. Indeed, the childish, personal nature of these arguments will shock anyone who imagines disinterested scientists searching together for truth.


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