January 8, 2005


Was Einstein wrong?: The idea of a variable speed of light, championed by an angry young scientist, could one day topple Einstein's theory of relativity (Paul Davies, April 2003, The Prospect)

Einstein's famous equation E=mc2 is the only scientific formula known to just about everyone. The "c" here stands for the speed of light. It is one of the most fundamental of the basic constants of physics. Or is it? In recent years a few maverick scientists have claimed that the speed of light might not be constant at all. Shock, horror! Does this mean the next Great Revolution in Science is just around the corner?

Well, maybe. According to one of those scientists, Portuguese-born, London-based Jo√£o Magueijo, cracks are appearing in Einstein's theory of relativity - the cornerstone of our present understanding of space, time and gravitation. In "Faster than the Speed of Light"(Heinemann) he describes his personal journey through this controversial and emotionally supercharged field.

Magueijo got into the subject while puzzling over the smoothness of the universe, a property illustrated by the recent results from the satellite WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe), showing a snapshot of the universe just 380,000 years after the big bang (see picture). Significantly, the infant cosmos appears uniform in temperature and density to about one part in 100,000.

The mystery here is that light can have travelled no more than 380,000 light years by that epoch, yet different patches of the sky shown in the snapshot might be millions of light years apart. As no force or influence can travel faster than light, these various patches can never have been in causal contact. So why are they so similar?

Magueijo has an answer. Perhaps light travelled much faster in the past, enabling forces to propagate more quickly. In that case, widely separated regions of the universe could have pushed and pulled on each other, and thus smoothed out their differences. The theory is easy to state, but it flies in the face of much accepted wisdom. For a start, cosmologists already line up behind a very different explanation for cosmic smoothness, called inflation. According to this scenario, the universe jumped in size by an enormous factor during the first split second. Any primordial irregularities would then have been stretched to oblivion. WMAP lends strong support to inflation.

More worryingly, constancy of the speed of light is central to the theory of relativity and the other areas of modern physics that this theory penetrates. Physicists will give up this key set of ideas only after a bitter struggle.

Not really. They'll abandon relativity for the same reason they adopted it--because the zeitgeist has shifted. Relativity was necessary for a universe where Nietzsche had declared God dead. Variability comports easily with the resurgence of faith and idea of a designed Universe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2005 8:30 PM


Just because a pernicious ethical "system" shares (part of) a name with a scientific theory hardly makes the ramifications of that system the same as those of the theory.

Special relativity was initially proposed to explain certain electromagnetic phenomena. General relativity deals with gravity and the curvature of space. Neither has anything to do with relativity of truth.

Posted by: Anthony Perez-Miller at August 15, 2004 7:02 PM

Orrin, I think you are getting things a bit bass-ackwards here. It's not like Einstein came along and said: "Nietzsche says God is dead, so I'll come up with some new theories to match." Then-current physics couldn't explain certain problems, and Einstein came up with better explanations. Any new theories that displace Einstein's won't be going back to pre-Einsteinian theories.

And the nitpick the article, the speed of light is a constant in a vacuum. It slows down (sometimes a lot) in other mediums.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 15, 2004 7:08 PM


He didn't explain anything, just offered a scientific theory that fit his times. Times have changed, so we'll get a new theory.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2004 7:43 PM

There seems to be a general problem with physics theories in that they tend to break down when applied beyond the realm in which they were formulated-- Newton's theories were created for the realm of planetary motion-- moderate speeds, moderate accelerations and small point-like objects. It broke down when applied to high speeds and dense massive objects-- hence special and general relativity. What we are seeing here is that those theories aren't up to explaining phenomena outside the current age of the universe or to large massive but low density objects either. Nothing new there. The real problem is that worshipers at the First Church of Einstein aren't yet willing to admit that their One True God, like Newton before Him, is fallible and will be replaced eventually. (Another attack on Einstein/Newton I came across recently is that the inverse square law for gravitation a small constant or linear factor that only applies to extremely low accelerations. It's an effort to explain some anomalous behavior in the motions of Pioneer 10/11 and the Voyagers.)

As for "moral relativity" vs. "theory of Relativity", Paul Johnson in Modern Times posits that it was a case of the social scientist following the lead of the physical scientists without understanding what the physical scientists were talking about.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 15, 2004 8:05 PM

Jeez, OJ, do you know anything about how science works? Theories aren't adopted because they sound nifty or impress the fashionable set; they're adopted because they do a better job than previous theories at predicting natural phenomena. It's called the Principle of Correspondence.

Einsteinian general relativity was proposed to account for anomalies in the paths taken by light rays around large objects. Special relativity, which really originated with earlier physicists such as Lorenz, Fitzgerald, Michaelson and Morley, was proposed to account for the inability to find differences in the transit time of light between objects moving at different speeds. Both were adopted because they succeeded at predicting the results of various experiments where Newtonian physics failed, while simultaneously covering all the phenomena Newtonian physics had covered, equally well.

Perez-Miller and Papaya are quite correct. Orrin is off-base this time. (Can't win 'em all, Orrin.)

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at August 15, 2004 8:09 PM


They do a better job of describing things consistent with the prevailing political notions of the time. Then the political notion shifts and the scientific paradigm follows.

Heisenberg explains:


Posted by: oj at August 15, 2004 8:21 PM

But it's always amusing to see a hardshell rightwinger like Orrin lining up with the extreme leftists.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 15, 2004 8:23 PM

Father Stanley Jaki (Benedictine priest, physicist, and science historian) likes to say the Theory of Relativity is misnamed, it should be the Theory of Invariance (invariance of the speed of light, that is).

Mr. Porretto - did Kuhn and Lakatos not make any impression upon you? Epicycles actually made slightly better predictions than did the Keplerian heliocentric model, but the simplicity of Kepler's model won some converts right away. Max Planck famously said, "A new (scientific) truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather the opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." There is of course a sociological component to science.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at August 15, 2004 8:28 PM

BTW, I bought & read Magueijo's book. It really isn't that good, and he comes across as snotty & juvenile.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at August 15, 2004 8:56 PM

Einstein wasn't the first to 'question' Newton - Max Planck started the ball rolling 10 or 15 years earlier.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 15, 2004 9:20 PM

OY, stick to kinky sex OJ. Calling Einstein's theories of relativity has led to a lot more misunderstanding than enlightenment.

Actually, the 1905 paper was titled "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." What was most important about the paper was not relativity, but invariance. Indeed the best one line take away for the theory is that the laws of physics (including Maxwell's equations, describing electromagnetic radiation, in their simple form) are the same (invariant) for all observers even if the observers are in frames of reference that are moving with relative to each other. The theory of General Relativity extended this invariance to accelerated frames of reference and gravity. That c is a constant and E=mc^2 is a consequence of this theory not a parameter.

The article you cited does not impress. The theories of General and Special Relativity are well established here on earth in modern laboratories. Observable and measurable quantities here in labs and in present astronomical events such as solar eclipses, the orbits of the planets and satellites have firmly established the theories. What the article says is that physicists cannot explain some phenomena in the early history of the universe based on their current knowledge of the facts with the physics they now have. One of two things has to change. My guess is that our knowledge of the facts will change long before our physics changes.

Your cultural reference is completely out to sea. Incidentally, Einstein's personal views on religion were not those of many of his more simple minded and more politically committed colleagues. He was not, of course, a Christian. He was also not a conventional theist. His personal beliefs were more like Spinoza but perhaps not so rigidly pantheistic.See Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 15, 2004 9:27 PM

"Epicycles actually made slightly better predictions than did the Keplerian heliocentric model, but the simplicity of Kepler's model won some converts right away."

I don't think so. Kepler lived a century after Copernicus. His achievement was to take the observations of his master Tycho Brahe, which were much better than those Copernicus had to work with and reduced them to his three laws.

Keplerís three laws differed in a very fundamental way from all previous systems of astronomy. Copernicus, like all of his predecessors practiced astronomy as a purely mathematical system. The cycles and epicycles had no meaning other than as computational devices. Kepler transformed astronomy into a dynamic science. His three laws are equivalent to Newtonís law of Gravitation. Newtonís great insight was in seeing that Keplerís laws and sub-lunary ballistics were part of the same phenomenon -- Gravity. It therefore follows that calculations made on the basis of Keplerís laws are like Newtonís, subejt to the adjustment that Kepler did not account for interaction between the planets.

P.S. Harry: Good Dig!

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 15, 2004 9:57 PM


The extremne Leftists were johnny-come-latelys. Their great insight--that nothing can be known rationally--was amply demonstrated thousands of years earlier and ably reiterated by Hume and others early in the Age of Reason. Nor does it matter much, except to Rationalists. Faith suffices, including faith in Reason.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2004 11:03 PM


Indeed, the only part of it that's wrong is that they do vary.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2004 11:06 PM

OJ: We are letting you off easy on this one. Now go pine away for Jim McGreevy.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 16, 2004 12:11 AM

This guy is one of many.

The real difference between science and what Orrin chooses to call faith -- actually, superstition -- its that scientists quetion their current understanding. Religious people are incapable of doing this.

Also, it would be helpful if Orrin would distinguish between validated theories and mere speculations. It's no wonder he's confused -- or pretends to be.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 16, 2004 2:01 AM

If Reason was like religion, we would still be worshipping Newton and railing--or ignoring--any contradictions to Newton.

Newtonian mechanics were known to be incomplete the moment telescopes were invented with the capability of resolving binary star systems. It took several centuries of work to determine why and how. The kind of work, BTW, to which organized religion is virtuall immune.

This is the last sentence from the review OJ linked to: "Therefore, it will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth."

Precisely--and all rationalists know this.

One could equally accurately say "Therefore, it will never be possible by making stuff up and putting it in a book to arrive at some absolute truth."

A great many religionist have failed to take this on board.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 16, 2004 8:05 AM

As Bruce points out, Theory of Invariance would have been a better name. I really don't see any correspondence between moral relativism and Einstein's theory.

Posted by: pj at August 16, 2004 8:45 AM

New theory on light weighs heavily on scientists: A brash young theoretical physicist claims Einstein was wrong (Lori Valigra, 1/30/03, CS Monitor)

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.
Y'all are easily shocked. Science is no different than any other faith.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 8:48 AM


There's a reason it's called the one and not the other.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 8:56 AM


"...ran into what Magueijo characterizes as condescension and purely political opposition."

As if he is a disinterested observer. While it may be the objections were childish and personal, there could be some wounded pride of authorship here.

But in any event, if Magueijo is correct, his theory will ultimately triumph. Which is more than one can say about sectarian arguments.

"There's a reason it's called the one and not the other." Within the context of the theory, it is an arbitrary choice.

There is no more correspondence between Einstein's theory and moral relativism than between soup and nuts.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 16, 2004 12:05 PM


A new record, you stumbled twice into the truth:

There are no disterested observers.


The nuts follow the soup as surely as the science follows the philosophy.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 12:16 PM


Undoubtedly there are philosophical preconceptions in any scientific theory.

To take two examples: in General Relativity, it is presumed that space (more properly, spacetime) is itself a thing, rather than merely a container for a thing, as in Newtonian cosmology.

And the founders of quantum mechanics were unduly influenced by logical positivism: hence they gave us a theory that explains nothing of the nature of the phenomena it describes.

You'd be a lot better off cherry-picking odd quotes from the likes of Heisenberg and Bohr than claiming that Einstein's relativities were influenced by a philosophically-driven urge to de-absolutize truth.

I'm a fan, but in this case you are making the same mistake as someone who describes the US, France, and various unlamented communist regimes as all the same because each describe themselves as "Republics".

Posted by: Anthony Perez-Miller at August 16, 2004 1:50 PM

Religious zealots like Orrin cannot accept that science provides ever closer appproximations to regularities, because there is always the possibility -- which turned into reality many, many times -- that these discoveries would contradict what the religionists had declared to be unquestionable truth.

Now, it was never necessary, from the point of view of either philosophy or Christian religion, to declare the Truth that comets cannot exist above the atmosphere. But Christian theologians and philosophers were ignorant and stupid, and they made that mistake. And, like Vanessa Williams, they made it over and over.

When you're batting .000, the only hope is to change the rules.

So now they are desperately trying to change them.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 16, 2004 2:13 PM

The Theory of Relativity might be replaced by the same theory under a different name.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at August 16, 2004 2:38 PM


Please do me the favor of noting syntax and meaning in my comments.

Clearly, disinterested is a matter of degree.

Just as clearly, soup and nuts is a term describing similarity, which has no relationship to time.

When you set up strawmen like that, it leads others to think you are running out of air.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 16, 2004 3:20 PM


You kidding? We love this stuff. You guys start yapping about how the Universe isn't geocentric, but it turns out it is. About Darwinism but nothing evolves. About invariance but it turns out to vary just enough for someone to fine tune the Universe. We just like poking at you while you flail your way back to where we never left.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 4:10 PM


Einstein was a prisoner of his times, just like anybody. I don't fault him his biases.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 4:12 PM


Except that it was excepted because it seemed to conform peoples' philosophy, not because of any intrinsic truth value.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 4:14 PM


Tut, tut, mustn't blame others for your ignorance:


Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 4:20 PM

It had to be renamed before it was accepted by non-scientific "intellectuals."

In any case, the decreasing usefulness of relativity to post-modernism made it necessary for someone to pretend to criticize it.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at August 16, 2004 5:52 PM

Geocentric? Have you gone environmentalist on us?

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at August 16, 2004 5:56 PM


Heisenberg Principle

Schroedinger's Cat

Fermi's Paradox

Holographic Universe


Anthropic Principle

Everything they're cranking out suggests we're the point of the universe, indeed that it may not exist unless we're looking at it.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 6:14 PM

Only the first of those is accepted science.

And you do not know what that one says, as you demonstrated last week.

The rest are speculations of, to me, little interest although it keeps the boys off the street.

When you come up with some evidence pro or con on any of them, call.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 16, 2004 6:56 PM


"Accepted" Good one.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 7:03 PM

"They'll abandon relativity for the same reason they adopted it--because the zeitgeist has shifted." - - so writes oj

The farce continues. The idea of changing a zeitgeist is ludicrous. Orrin, at least your snake-oil-salesman approach is entertaining. Watching a shyster is sometimes entertaining.

Relativity did not require abandoning pre-relativistic physics; likewise relativity will not be abandoned. Relativity was a nuance, a quite astounding nuance at that. Relativity certainly resolved a number of curiosities, and led to technical breakthroughs. But the price of milk didn't change, nor did the crime rate - the fingerbowl philosophers had more BS to dispense; that's about all. Nearly every medium-sized town in America has a machine(a linear accelerator used in medicine) that requires accounting for relativistic effects - - but SO WHAT!! The distinctive claims about how "so much has change!!! " .. "omigod, it is sooo DIFFERENT now !!" that schtick is predominantly seen in nontechnical folks who claim some sort of astounding new conclusion about mankind or our universe.

What a farce.

"They'll abandon relativity for the same reason they adopted it--because the zeitgeist has shifted."

"Abandonment" applied only to those with weak egos ... the know-it-alls ... who had staked a claim to the inevitably-faulty position of saying, "The 'story' about our world on this particular date is SO valid that there shall NEVER be a modification(the fabric of our world has no additional tapestry to be found)."

Now certainly some folks in religion(the supernatural) take correspondingly adamant positions.

"...constancy of the speed of light is central to the theory of relativity and the other areas of modern physics that this theory penetrates." - - no it's not. Any change in the speed of light would be found to occur at what we regard as extraordinary situations. We'd continue to work with a "constant" speed of light for the conditions that we've worked with up to the end of the 20th century. [ p.s., "c" is a constant only within a vacuum, and now we accept that even deep space is not a true vacuum. In addition, Cherenkov radiation is emitted when (e.g., in water) various charged particles travel faster than the light particles (GASP ! ) . Is nothing sacred? Orrin, get a life.

"Einstein's famous equation E=mc2 is the only scientific formula known to just about everyone." - - this is strikingly false. Well more than 2 billion humans know nothing about this formula. Perhaps an even larger number have seen the formula but cannot come close to explaining its significance.

The lever formula is known implicitly, if not formally, to even children:
F-action = ( d-long / d-short ) * f-applied

f = m * a is also well known, somewhat because of its useful intuitiveness.

R = V / i -- the electrical resistance formula -- is astoundingly better known than E = m*c*c . And by coincidence, it is eminently more useful[ "don't say it's so!! curses!" ] However, various coffeehouse philosophers (aka BS'ers ) may not care to acknowledge humanity's attention to the lowly MUNDANE formulae which are truly recognized by practical, living-in-this-world-instead-of-in-our-heads persons.

The Einstein equation, for a majority of those who can write it, is "known" like the Coke logo is "known." Its phonetic expression is often "known," akin to how a person knows how to speak "doh-reh-me-fah-so-lah-tee-doh."

I work with relativistic-significant phenomena, and it ain't nearly as 'profound' as the humanities-oriented BS'ers make it out to be. Get a grip.


Posted by: LarryH at August 16, 2004 8:38 PM


Yes, it's failure to answer any significant questions about life will make it easy for us to shuck it off.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 9:12 PM

"... indeed that it may not exist unless we're looking at it."

Your confusion of the physicists use of the term "observation" with "looking at it" shows clearly you need to stop using concepts you don't understand.

Regarding Fermi's Paradox. Keep in mind, though most don't, that successfully getting a spaceship from one star to the next requires as much energy to stop as to start. And generating all that energy means having to sink a great deal of heat in space, which is far from easy to do. The bigger the ship, the greater the energy, the more the heat, the larger the ship because of the heat sink requirements.

Look like a vicious circle to you?

The answer to Fermi's paradox may well be: can't get here from there.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 16, 2004 9:25 PM


If there were others around they'd have figured it out.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 9:32 PM


You are making the completely unfounded assumption the problem is solvable. NB: I'm not saying it isn't; rather, it is silly to automatically presume it is.

Just because you want it to be, in order for the Other's absence to (unjustifiably) confirm your religious views, doesn't make it so.

You are falling prey to the fallacy of consequences.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 16, 2004 10:25 PM

If infinity then solvability.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2004 10:47 PM

"If infinity then solvability."

That is pure nonsense. Never mind that since it took roughly 30% of the age of the universe to get to us, talking about infinity is ridiculous.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 17, 2004 6:59 AM


Yes, we're the greatest beings in existence.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 8:57 AM

You are engaging in non-sequitors and baseless assertions.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 17, 2004 11:27 AM

Yes, Orrin, 'accepted'

Unlike religious dogma, science has to go through a testing process. There are lots of likely candidates that have not passed and been accepted, yet are not read out of court, either.

As for Fermi's Paradox, if you're going to argue from logic, you have to be logical.

Besides Jeff's practical objection, there is the fact that we have no reason to think that there could be an infinitude of universes. If the total is anything less than infinity, then the paradox disappears if you are the first (or one of the first) or the last of the multiple universes.

We have no way, so far, of knowing where in the sequence, if there is a sequence, we stand, so the fact that we have not been contacted is not paradoxical.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 17, 2004 2:44 PM


Yes, you're reduced to thinking that your time and place is special.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 4:12 PM

No, I'm reduced to thinking that there's not much evidence either way.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 17, 2004 4:59 PM

And then you just stake it all on faith. My point exactly.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 5:03 PM


No, Harry stakes it on faith buttressed by evidence.

You base it all on faith--pure concoction, in other words.

There's a difference--Harry's and my point exactly. Thank you for making it so effectively.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 17, 2004 5:10 PM


Not all all, I have faith in your evidence too--it's the basis of my broader faith.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 5:38 PM

Well, that is wonderful.

Perhaps you could accord to others' faith the respect you demand for yours.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 17, 2004 7:41 PM

Why? Our society is based on mine and its opponents, like you, are trying to destroy it.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 8:13 PM


Considering I spent 20 years defending it, that is beyond insulting.

For all the morality you religionists espouse, you are certainly ready with baseless ad hominem attacks.

And are the last to note the evils to which claiming absolute truth lead, or the fact that secularism has kept your ilk from shredding society through sectarian violence.

It has been known to happen.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 17, 2004 10:46 PM

Never. While the secular statist epoch from the 30s to the late 70s did much damage. Luckily we avoided major violence as the faithful retook the government, but the potential was there in the 70s/80s. Now secularism is in such rapid decline that moment of danger has passed.

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2004 11:08 PM

Never? Not the Inquisition, or the 30-yrs war, or the extermination of any number of "heresies?"

Surely, you jest.

You, who espouse statist intervention into people's decisions about what they will watch or read, or risks they choose to take, are the enemy of liberty.

Fortunately, last I read, the largest growing faith (and now second largest after Christianity) in the US is none in particular. There are a whole lot of people out there who aren't willing for someone else's notion of Absolute Truth to be rammed down their throats.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 18, 2004 6:10 AM

They didn't shred society, they made it.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2004 8:26 AM

They slaughtered, and it took secularism to stop them doing it.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 18, 2004 9:54 AM

Slaughtered? Hardly. Slaughter started with the secularist Nazis and Marxists.

Posted by: oj at August 18, 2004 11:17 AM

Contrary to what you might expect, I do not spend all my time googling for Christian atrocities, it's just that they are so common that in my general reading I encounter almost every week ones I didn't know much about.

Slaughter, in the exact sense you mean, started with the Catholics. I was not aware, until last night, that the Final Solution against the Orthodox Serbs began before the Final Solution against the Jews. (The first was, simultaneously, not surprisingly, also against the Jews, but the Serbs are the example that counts.)

Though you have often asserted that Darwinists introduced the concept of racial extermination, that turns out to be false, as in the First Final Solution, the Roman Catholic Croats refused to accept conversions of Orthodox Serbs.

The mass murders were not led by gauleiters but by Franciscan priests, and were endorsed by the pope in Rome.

Later, when secular forces put the Croat murderers on the run, they hid out in the Vatican.

All of this began before the formation of the einstazgruppen.

I should not have been, but even I was a little surprised by the cynicism of the Catholic exterminationist policies.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 18, 2004 2:36 PM


Source, please?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at January 9, 2005 9:16 PM

John Cornwell, 'Hitler's Pope.'

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 10, 2005 3:55 PM

Which Cornwell himself repudiated and says he wrote for Harryesque reasons.

Posted by: oj at January 10, 2005 4:16 PM