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The miracle worker

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Author Topic: The miracle worker  (Read 61 times)
Deborah Valkenburg
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Posts: 3233

« on: May 04, 2008, 02:45:21 pm »

The miracle worker

Oct 02, 2005 01:00 AM
Albert Einstein lives.

Not the iconic scientist himself, who died in 1955 still working on theoretical calculations in his hospital bed, but the Einstein who lit so many scientific beacons and whose ideas are as alive today as during his lifetime perhaps even more so.

Around the world, thousands of scientists are concentrating their minds and their experimental prowess on challenges that Einstein first identified or pushed to the fore of the research agenda. In the thick of this continuing quest are scores of Canadian researchers.

Physicists across the country are working on a crucial element of the most complex experiment on Earth, a multibillion-dollar proton smasher in Switzerland that can be traced back to the famous formula E=mc2. And measurements by astronomers at York University are pivotal to the most complex experiment ever in space, a $700-million (U.S.) spacecraft that's testing the general theory of relativity, Einstein's most inspired feat of sustained intuition.

This continuing quest must be seen as part of Einstein's vast legacy, especially in a year that marks the centenary of the scientist's annus mirabilis. Miraculous is the only word to describe the 12 months in 1905 when a 26-year-old clerk in a Swiss patent office produced not only his Ph.D thesis but also three stunning research papers that eventually revolutionized our understanding of energy, light and matter, all based on "thought experiments" rather than lab work.

Einstein's legacy is also evident in daily life as scientists and engineers continue to explore practical uses for his breakthroughs. For instance, the physics principle behind the ubiquitous laser was outlined by Einstein in 1916, although technology needed decades to catch up with his insight. Perhaps even more surprising is the relevance of Einstein's theories to things such as transporting liquid cement or using GPS on golf carts to calculate yardage.
 In 2005, Ideas examined these continuing quests in a series conceived and organized by Peter Calamai, the Star's national science reporter.

The series began with astrophysicist Clifford Will providing a preview of a lecture he gave across Canada entitled "Was Einstein Right?". Calamai contributed in-depth looks at Canadian researchers pursuing Einstein's unparalleled legacy.

The series also includes a three-part account of the international race to test relativity, and a look at the equivalent modern race to come up with the "Theory of Everything."

Albert Einstein lives... here.
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Skepticism is good, but when you reach a certain level where
you're grasping at straws and making little sense... it's not
called skepticism.  It's called ignorance.

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Deborah Valkenburg
Superhero Member
Posts: 3233

« Reply #1 on: May 04, 2008, 10:58:02 pm »

Einstein's respectful heretic
Joo Magueijo says the speed of light isn't constant, but he's not trying to be rude

Nov 27, 2005 01:00 AM
Peter Calamai
National Science Reporter
Even when raising his voice above the din of Sunday brunch at a Queen West caf, Joo Magueijo does not evoke the image of an angry man determined to challenge one of Albert Einstein's chief legacies, and perhaps pull down the edifice of modern physics.

Outspoken and outrageous, definitely academic journals are useless, string theory is crap, science administrators are parasites but those harsh words issue from a face that's nearly always smiling and often laughing.

The Portuguese-born theoretical physicist is a good-natured scientific revolutionary. He pretty much has to be, since questioning a central pillar of modern science inevitably draws a lot of flak. Notoriety has followed the 38-year-old during a sabbatical from his home in London, England, to the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto and his main gig at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

Magueijo's heresy is to contend that the speed of light is not the unvarying speed limit for the universe, as Einstein famously decreed in the special theory of relativity and enshrined in the world's best known equation, E = mc{+2}. Instead, he says, at the birth of the universe light travelled much faster than the supposed maximum speed and has been slowing down ever since.

The challenge to scientific orthodoxy doesn't end there. Magueijo is also active in a small group espousing something called Double Special Relativity, which says, among much else, that different colours of light travel at different speeds.

And then there's his intentionally provocative name for a mystifying pattern recently discovered in the microwave radiation that permeates the universe: the Axis of Death (see glossary).

"It's basically our job to question everything that's been proposed," says the unapologetic Magueijo. "The only way for us to respect Einstein is to try to improve on him and basically to see how watertight his work is."

A century after Einstein overturned the smug world of Newtonian physics with four landmark scientific papers, a growing number of researchers are exploring the terrain beyond Einstein. Until now, the shortcomings of relativity have been glossed over in favour of its undeniable strength as the best available explanation for how the universe works on a large scale.

But whenever scientists venture out on a starlit night, they're reminded of a whopping shortcoming in our current understanding. With a decent backyard telescope, you too can share in what is known as the Horizon Problem.

Look at one of the many galaxies whose light took 10 billion years to reach us. Then turn around and look at one of the equally distant galaxies in the opposite direction.

Those galaxies are 20 billion light years apart. But astronomers are certain that the whole universe is a little less than 14 billion years old. Since nothing travels faster than the speed of light, this implies that those two regions could never have interacted in any way.

To drive the conundrum home, think of the universe just one second after the Big Bang. It had a radius of 300,000 kilometres, the distance light travels in a second. But those two regions on opposing sides of the circumference were already twice that distance apart, a span that light could not bridge even then. The regions might as well have been in two separate universes from the very first microsecond of creation.

The whopping scientific problem is that the universe in front of us and the universe behind us are, in Magueijo's phrase, "heavily in tune." Galaxies are distributed more or less uniformly around the universe, and the temperature of space is the same everywhere.

He asks pointedly: "How do things get the same temperature if they weren't in contact at some point?"

To resolve this conundrum, two decades ago a few scientists conjured up an idea called cosmological inflation. In this view, the universe started about the size of a proton with everything touching but then expanded wildly to the size of a grapefruit in a fraction of a second. That was inflation. Then the rate of expansion slowed to what's observed today. Problem solved.

Yet not only does inflation reek of contrivance, there's also only one tiny bit of indirect evidence to support it. Not satisfied with this state of affairs, some theorists began proposing alternate solutions, including Magueijo's Varying Speed of Light, abbreviated to VSL.

"The different bits of the early universe don't know about each other because there's not been enough time for information to travel about, if the speed limit is the speed of light as we measure it today. It's like there's no way to stir the milk and coffee into milky coffee. So to get these bits homogenated, what you need is first of all to increase the speed limit, and then take it from there."

In a refreshingly candid and occasionally over-the-top book, Magueijo says the VSL idea seemed to drop from the sky one rainy morning as he walked across a sports field at the University of Cambridge "nursing a bad hangover."

"The idea was beautifully simple, but immediately I felt uneasy about offering it as an explanation," he writes in Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation. "It involved something that for a trained scientist approached madness. It challenged perhaps the most fundamental rule of modern physics: that the speed of light is constant."

When the book was published in 2003, Magueijo's idea had been circulating for five years, and "mad" was one of the gentler epithets that had been hurled his way. An interview in New Scientist, a British weekly magazine, was headlined "Hero or heretic," with the interviewer asking if Magueijo pictured himself as the angry young man of physics.

In The New York Times book review section, his published account was labelled "puerile" and Magueijo was dismissed as "a bristly antagonist who, at least as he depicts himself, is very difficult to take."

None of this alleged bristly anger is on display during brunch or a later chat in Trinity Bellwood Park as soccer players course up and down the field, some shouting in Portuguese.

Instead, Magueijo patiently explains the intricacies of his Einstein-challenging research, even sketching diagrams in a reporter's notebook.

Along the way, he also offers insights into something just as important: What motivates scientists to take on such uphill quests as trying to amend general relativity.

"You should never expect to have a logical transition from one well-established theory to the next one. There's always an intermediate theory, and I think we're going through that period," he says. "There are hints that, experimentally, relativity might be in trouble. But the things that are superseding it are often not very clear theoretically, not well established.

`The idea was beautifully simple, but immediately I felt uneasy about offering it as an explanation'


"We're at this point where things are going to change but we don't know exactly into what. We're basically coming up with hints, with kind of intuitions about what the new theory might be. And there are ideas again, we wouldn't call them theories ideas, a framework within which to summarize the anomalies and explain why they really are against relativity and why something new is necessary."

Other theoretical physicists in Canada are following paths that lead beyond Einstein's universe, and two of the leaders are also at the Perimeter Institute: Lee Smolin and John Moffat.

The 73-year-old Moffat is an emeritus University of Toronto physics professor of near legendary status among theorists for his dogged non-conformity. He has challenged many of the most deeply rooted concepts in cosmology but always with an eye to how his ideas could be tested experimentally.

"You can speculate about theories of physics, but in the end the data are the driving force," Moffat says.

A similar desire for solid observational evidence drives Magueijo.

"I really like table-top experiments, or solar system experiments, which will decide between these things," he says about competing theories of gravity.

Yet something much more astonishing also links the not-so-angry young man and the ever-questioning older one: Moffat was the first scientist to suggest in modern times that the speed of light could vary.

In 1992, he submitted a paper outlining this idea to Physical Review D, a leading physics journal. After a year's battle with the editor, and an anonymous reviewer raising objection after objection, Moffat gave up and published instead in an obscure Italian journal.

So in 1998, when Magueijo and colleague Andy Albrecht sent their own paper about the varying speed of light to the very same Physical Review D, they didn't realize they were actually rediscovering the concept. But Moffat spotted an online abstract of the Magueijo-Albrecht paper and yelped. A last-minute note was added acknowledging his earlier work.

"There was zero reaction to my idea originally, but now it's become a famous paper with hundreds of citations," Moffat says.

The incident illustrates two truisms about frontier research, especially in areas such as cosmology and theoretical physics. First, someone is soon going to have the same brainstorm even if the first person gets clobbered by a bus before publishing (Einstein's general relativity might be the exception).

Second, the scientific establishment can be counted on to give a hard time to anyone trying to overthrow a paradigm.

Moffat agrees that paradigms should be overthrown "only when necessary." He then proceeds to outline his new theory of gravity, which would overthrow both Einstein and Newton.

The moment of truth for the theory should come next year with a detailed analysis of the gravitational pull on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, launched more than three decades ago and now heading out beyond the solar system.

"I'm usually looking to explain nature in an original way," says Moffat. "I guess I'm a person who's always outside the box."

So too is Smolin, a collaborator with Magueijo on several ideas that would certainly shake the edifice of modern physics if they pan out, and might actually bring it tumbling down around their ears.

A well-regarded American theorist and author of several popular science books, the 50-year-old Smolin was one of Perimeter's big catches as a long-term researcher when the institute was getting underway five years ago. For the past decade, he has been refining an idea called loop quantum gravity, where the fabric of space-time consists of a sort of foam made up of tiny packets, or quanta.

But some aspects of the approach clashed with the dictates of special relativity. Then, in May 2001, Italian physicist Giovanni Amelino-Camelia proposed Double Special Relativity (DSR), based on the notion that Einstein nailed down only half the story.

In a DSR universe, not only does the speed of light appear the same to all observers, whether moving or stationary, but so does the length of a particle that is shrunk to the microscopic threshold where quantum mechanics kicks in.

Magueijo and Smolin realized that Double Special Relativity could provide a key to resolving problems with both the varying speed of light and loop quantum gravity. They developed their own version of the concept, as have theorists elsewhere. Confusingly for the non-scientist, numerous versions of E = mc{+2} are now floating around.

For his sabbatical year, Magueijo has another project underway with Smolin, which he describes as "these crazy ideas" about wormhole-like structures (think Star Trek) that might tunnel across the universe, according to some interpretations of loop quantum gravity.

"What people have been realizing is that the varying speed of light is really a way of describing a channel with a faster light across the universe," he says.

Now hopelessly befuddled, a listener asks how Magueijo would explain VSL to a smart 12-year-old.

"The speed of light is a speed limit you can't go faster than this. So it's essentially as simple as saying that that speed limit is not universal. It's not the same on every road. There are highways, there are toll roads, and there are different speed limits in different places. It could be like things change over the years, like you have cars go faster or go slower. Or it could actually be spatial, different corners of the universe have a different speed limit."

He pauses. "That's one way to put it. But it's not really that simple."

Then the angry young man of physics laughs.
Report Spam   Logged

Skepticism is good, but when you reach a certain level where
you're grasping at straws and making little sense... it's not
called skepticism.  It's called ignorance.
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