Friday, August 23, 2013

Descriptive and Evocative Writing About Joao Magueijo's Varying Speed of Light Theory

Mary Rogan's feature story "Faster Than the Speed of Light" (January/February 2003 issue of Seed) vividly explains complex concepts in an engaging and easy to understand manner. Physicist Joao Magueijo's Varying Speed of Light (VSL) Theory proposes that Albert Einstein's Theory of Relavity--perhaps the most famous and influential theory ever--is incorrect or at least incomplete. Einstein posited that the speed of light is constant but Magueijo contends that in the first moments after the Big Bang light moved faster than it does now. If Magueijo is right, his VSL Theory will upend nearly several decades' worth of developments in theoretical physics and resolve some vexing questions about the creation of the universe.

Rogan's article could easily have been dull, esoteric and/or impossible for a layperson to follow. She took a different approach: conversational, sassy and brimming with indelible images and metaphors. This is her opening paragraph:

Thinking about the universe will fuck you up. Talking with Joao Magueijo won't help. He's the 34-year-old theoretical physicist who's about to take a bite out of Albert Einstein's ass. The more I talk with Joao, the more it feels like talking with Tom Toughey in high school after I've smoked a joint. Tom could shake his eyeballs. Not his eyelids or the corner of his eyes but both his actual eyeballs. He'd corner me in the hall and shake his elecric blue orbs until I'd run screaming into the girl's room to try and splash down my high with cold water. Joao is no Tom Toughey, but he's close. And right now he's poised to jack modern physics into overdrive. Fuck the speed limit of the universe. With Joao at the wheel, there are no speed limits. That'll set your eyeball shaking.

My writing style is much different than that--more formal, less vulgar--but I appreciate Rogan's rhythm and flow; that paragraph is energetic and intriguing: it demands that you keep reading.

The universe is so large--and it expanded so quickly--that a beam of light could not travel all of the way across it at Einstein's theoretical speed of light (186,000 miles per second). This means that far flung regions of the universe should have never been in contact with each other and thus should have differing properties but our observations suggest that this is not the case. This is formally known as the Homogeneity Problem but Rogan explains the concept informally by using a clever analogy:

The universe, despite its vastness, is remarkably similar. In scientific terms, this means the natural laws that govern the universe are the same all over. How is this possible? How can parts of the universe that are eons away from each other speak the same language? How and when were they all in the same room together? Imagine you grew up in the Bronx and someone else grew up in Africa. You're ten-thousand miles apart. You have no plane or boat. No teleporting machine. Presumably, you've never met. But somehow, you speak the same language, wear the same clothes, and eat the same food. That's impossible. That's fucked up.

VSL Theory solves the Homogeneity Problem by asserting that right after the Big Bang light traveled faster than it does now but as the universe cooled light slowed down. Or, as Rogan memorably puts it, "Like a fast and furious friendship, someone stops calling. Two days go by, then a week. Things slow down until you drift apart. Galaxies that were once close are now light years apart." Our universe is cold, vast and aloof, much like a friend who once seemed close but is now distant and unavailable.

Is Magueijo right? Einstein's Theory of Relativity is one of the most well-tested and successful theories ever; more than 100 years after Einstein published it in his annus mirabilis, researchers are still devising new ways to test it and it has yet to fail. It will be interesting to see if Magueijo's concept can similarly withstand such rigorous investigation. Rogan writes that Magueijo has a very pragmatic attitude about this: "Nothing lasts forever. Not an idea or a man. That's why Joao doesn't worry about taking Einstein down. He tells me it's a sign of respect to question everything. Einstein kept asking questions until he found one he couldn't answer. Then he died." Before Einstein penned the final draft of his theory, he toyed with the VSL concept; as a scientist he would approve of Magueijo's questioning and wondering, even if as a proud individual he would believe that his theory most closely mirrors the Old Man's thoughts (as Einstein might put it).

Near the end of the article, Rogan mentions that Magueijo asked her a question: Why did Holocaust survivor/respected writer Primo Levi commit suicide? Here is Rogan's description of that part of their conversation:

Now he's asking me something I can maybe answer. But I don't because before I can tell him what I think, he offers his own explanation. Maybe, after all those years of being at someone else's mercy, Levi wanted control. Wanted to fall down his own stairs before some Nazi pushed him. This idea seems to make Joao feel better. He's talked a lot about getting out of physics while he's still at the top of his game. Maybe get back to music or take up writing full time. He doesn't want to be like Einstein. By the end of his career, Einstein was frustrated and disappointed. He was pushing beyond his limits and he knew it.

I'm listening to Joao and figure I don't need to tell him my theory about Primo Levi. Besides, it's in direct contradiction to his. I imagine Levi was just exhausted. Adversity doesn't make you stronger; it just drains your tank. So by the time Primo Levi killed himself, the everyday insults that life throws at us probably felt like boulders falling on his head.

I will not presume to know what thoughts and emotions tormented Levi but I think that both Magueijo and Rogan may be correct in a larger, more general sense: Levi's final act may have been both a defiant assertion of control and an escape from a world that can be unbearably painful for the highly intelligent and highly sensitive. I suspect that many of the Holocaust survivors who committed suicide decades after the Event did so because they felt disillusioned by how little the world has changed, how little people have learned. If you devote your life to bearing witness to an atrocity and the world neither listens to your story nor heeds your message/warning then life could seem intolerably meaningless and hopeless, if not cosmically absurd.

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