Science

IN FROM THE COLD

A Toronto physicist’s once-ridiculed theory gains acceptance

MICHAEL J. MARTIN March 24 2003
Science

IN FROM THE COLD

A Toronto physicist’s once-ridiculed theory gains acceptance

MICHAEL J. MARTIN March 24 2003

IN FROM THE COLD

Science

MICHAEL J. MARTIN

A Toronto physicist’s once-ridiculed theory gains acceptance

TORONTO PHYSICIST John Moffat, who has made a career of questioning the cosmos, faces a vexing question himself. Does he feel vindicated, people ask, now that his controversial theory about the speed of light is finally getting the recognition it deserves? The soft-spoken, 70-year-old Moffat might answer with a resounding “yes,” if not for a painful irony—while publicity is shining on his theory, the media are lavishing credit on another scientist.

Since 1991, Moffat has championed the notion that light—remarkable for its constant velocity—was travelling much faster just after the big bang created the universe. His theory violates Albert Einstein’s universal speed limit. Nothing, Einstein decreed, could ever travel faster that the constant speed of light, not even light itself. Backed by decades of evidence that supported Einstein, Moffat’s peers greeted his thoughts with sighs and sneers. Having found a publisher for his ridiculed thesis in 1993—a little-known journal, the International Journal of Modern Physics—he retired from the University of Toronto in the faint afterglow of this achievement,

Then in 1998, two brash, well-connected upstarts from London’s Imperial College published virtually the same idea, in Physical Review, a far more prestigious publication. After their own battle with what they call “fossilized” academics and “moronic” journal editors, Andreas Albrecht and Joao Magueijo supercharged their careers with the “varying speed of light,” or VSL, theory that Moffat conceived seven years earlier. The presence of a faster speed of light in the early universe may explain many cosmic mysteries, such as how the universe seems so homogeneous from one end to the other.

No one disputes Moffat’s primacy in VSL’s conception, or that its subsequent resur-

rection by Magueijo and Albrecht happened independently. Magueijo even devotes most of a chapter of his new book, Faster Than the Speed of Light, to Moffat and the controversy that generated a disclaimer crediting Moffat in a second version of Magueijo’s original paper.

That effort to bring Moffat back into the picture has attracted admiration. “Joao Magueijo has probably done far more to recognize John than other researchers would have,” says Acadia University physicist and Moffat collaborator Michael Clayton of Wolfville, N.S. Publication may secure partial recognition for an idea, he adds, but “it seems like you still have to sell it. If you

Even in pure science, PR counts. The way to secure credit for a new concept, says one lawyer, is to publish-and promote.

don’t make noise, people either will not know that your work exists or ignore it.” Toronto intellectual property lawyer James Holloway agrees. “The best thing one can do to secure ultimate credit for work of value is to publish—and promote.” The PR machine behind 35-year-old Magueijo, particularly, has packaged a man variously described by reporters as scholarly, roguish, rebellious, revolutionary and “ridiculously handsome.” “The heir apparent to Einstein’s kingdom looks like a Gap ad,” writes Toronto journalist Mary Rogan in Seed magazine. She calls Magueijo “a dead ringer for Joey on Friends, only better because he’s not a moron.” Asks Publishers Weekly. “Could Einstein be wrong and Magueijo right?”

Magueijo may not always feel obliged by an onus to correct oversights, either. Moffat says he was perturbed that, in a recent CBC interview, Magueijo “remarkably made no mention of my discovery of VSL.” In an irony among ironies, however, Magueijo and Moffat may be the best things that ever happened to one another. If, against the odds, two smart scientific rebels independently conceive— and champion—a hopeless idea, then maybe, just maybe, there is hope for it after all. lifi