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the Complete Review
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Faster Than the Speed of Light

João Magueijo

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To purchase Faster Than the Speed of Light

Title: Faster Than the Speed of Light
Author: João Magueijo
Genre: Science
Written: 2003
Length: 263 pages
Availability: Faster Than the Speed of Light - US
Faster Than the Speed of Light - UK
Faster Than the Speed of Light - Canada
Faster Than the Speed of Light - India
Plus vite que la lumière - France
Schneller als die Lichtgeschwindigkeit - Deutschland
Più veloce della luce - Italia
Mas rapido que la velocidad de la Luz - España
  • The Story of a Scientific Speculation
  • Note that the British edition includes editorial changes made in response to apparent threats of legal action by Nature

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Our Assessment:

B : spirited (mean and otherwise) account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 30/1/2003 Lori Valigra
The Economist . 30/1/2003 .
The Guardian . 29/3/2003 Manjit Kumar
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/2/2003 George Johnson
Prospect . 4/2003 Paul Davies
Scientific American . 4/2003 Philip Morrison
Sunday Telegraph . 6/4/2003 Graham Farmelo
TLS . 4/4/2003 John Leslie
The Village Voice . 22/4/2003 Anya Kamenetz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Magueijo's quirky book is an effort to bring these new ideas to the general public, along with an illuminating peek at these internecine battles among competing scientists and their own stiff conceptions of what's right and what's crazy. (...) Strikingly candid, the book brings esoteric scientific concepts within reach of nonscientists." - Lori Valigra, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Mr Magueijo's attempt to portray himself as a brilliant maverick, a successor to Richard Feynman, or a rival theorist to the great Einstein, is simply laughable. (...) If, as Mr Magueijo claims, he wanted us to take the diatribes that litter his book as jokes, they fall crashingly flat." - The Economist

  • "Magueijo provides a highly readable account of the problems besetting modern cosmology and how they appear to be resolved by VSL. Better still, he gives an honest and revealing insight into what it's like to carry out scientific research" - Manjit Kumar, The Guardian

  • "(W)hatever his gifts as a theorist, as an author Magueijo is only partly successful. (...) Though we get some glimpses here of theorists grappling with an elusive idea, too much of the story comes off as puerile." - George Johnson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Not only is his theory confrontational, so are his opinions about the scientific community. He devotes a lot of space to attacking the peer-review system, university administration, journal policy and some of his colleagues. Although a few of these jibes are probably justified, and young researchers may empathise with them, I found his remarks too coarse and flippant. (...) Many readers will enjoy this book's irreverence and iconoclastic message." - Paul Davies, Prospect

  • "The book at hand is a People's Manifesto by an articulate and inventive opposition to the complacent consistency I have just expressed." - Philip Morrison, Scientific American

  • "But what makes the book memorable is not the hypothetical science but the author's high-kicking attacks on his enemies in academia." - Graham Farmelo, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Largely thanks to his work, VLS find a hearing at many conferences and is widely discussed on the Internet. Why, then, do his pages contain so much bitterness and belligerence ?" - John Leslie, Times Literary Supplement

  • "FTSL provides the vicarious thrills that the poetically or mystically minded reader looks for in a book on theoretical physics. (...) The simplification, and the author's interest in topics outside his research, also make the book a less than demanding read." - Anya Kamenetz, The Village Voice (Voice Educational Supplement)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Faster Than the Speed of Light refers to a theory that physicist João Magueijo has done extensive work on -- "VSL" (varying speed of light), which proposes that the speed of light, the famous "c" in Einstein's E=mc², is in fact not a constant.
       Magueijo tells his Story of a Scientific Speculation in two parts, the first ("The Story of c") focussing on the evolution of theories of cosmology ("the study of the universe as a whole"), and the second ("Light Years") on VSL.
       Magueijo does a nice job of explaining specifically Einstein's contributions to modern physics, and then the problems posed by some of the consequences of Einstein's theories, specifically in cosmology. Here and elsewhere most of Magueijo's emphasis remains on the story of these scientific speculations, rather than on the science itself, and while the Einsteinian physics is, in part, presented in some detail, much of the contemporary cosmology is only very loosely outlined. (Admittedly it's complicated stuff, but often in the book one wishes for a more detailed examination of the science.)
       Throughout, Magueijo takes a very scientist- (rather than science-)centred approach, captivated by the figures (often misunderstood in their time or working against some terrible odds) -- from Einstein to Alexander Friedman and then many of his own co-workers. (He even annoyingly includes headshots of many of his colleagues (and even his girlfriend), as if their appearance were in any way relevant to the matters at hand (they're not).) Occasionally, also, he tries too hard to liven up the science -- to describe the universe's expansion as "crazy amphetaminic" isn't particularly useful.
       Magueijo does a decent job of tracing the evolution of various scientific theories and what led up to his interest in VSL -- and he does explain what advantages (and problems) there are with this (or rather: these) new approaches to cosmology -- but it's all a bit much to contain in one book, and he doesn't even try very hard. He acknowledges at the end, among other things: "It's difficult to sum up where VSL stands, as I finish this book (.....) VSL is now an umbrella for many different theories". Magueijo does consider some specific forms of VSL, and discusses some interesting consequences, such as what might happen as one travels into a black hole (something very different than popular theory has had it until now), but overall he offers only a rough guide to what is a very complex field. Still, as a popular introduction to VSL Faster Than the Speed of Light is certainly adequate.
       The book is also of interest because of Magueijo's focus on how science is done -- the bureaucracy, the competition, the problems of getting published ..... Here too Magueijo is too anecdotal -- but many of the stories and digs are amusing. From his refusal to name a particular physicist who made significant contributions in one field because "he gets so ballistic when he is not cited by name that I can't help not citing him here" to his contempt for the administrative layers that he feels stifle scientific practise he can be pretty funny. Unfortunately, he can also be petty and even stoops to fairly mindless name-calling -- insisting, for example, that the Nature editor responsible for cosmology is "a first-class moron".
       Elsewhere -- and far too often -- he is also too judgemental (and too simplistic in his judgements):

Henry then made a cardinal mistake: He listened to a senior scientist who held power over his career. As a rule of thumb, one should always assume that such people are senile
       Magueijo tries too hard to show the free-spirit side of science, but he does manage to convey his enthusiasm. He's also good in conveying the particular selling points of VSL as scientific practice -- especially that a lot of it can be "tested here and now", i.e. that it's not just airy philosophical speculation but rather something very real, aspects of which can be disproven or proven by experimentation and observation.
       Magueijo does write engagingly, and though some of his asides and personal stories can seem relatively pointless (or rather: are several points too many), the book reads easily and well. Certainly recommended for anyone interested in current theories of the universe -- and the similarly confusing world of scientific academia.

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Faster Than the Speed of Light: Reviews: Joao Magueijo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       João Magueijo teaches physics at Imperial College, London.

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© 2003-2011 the complete review

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