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Physicist John Moffat Hopes To Rewrite The History Of The Universe

John Moffat
by Nicolle Wahl
Toronto - Mar10, 2003
Professor emeritus John Moffat of physics has his own ideas about relativity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Albert Einstein's famous theory has formed the backbone upon which cosmology experts have sought to explain how the universe began and eventually how it will end.

But in spite of Einstein's genius, his theories have presented several problems for physicists such as how to explain the expansion of the universe and the existence of mysterious "negative-mass" matter.

In 1981 the inflationary universe model was proposed to solve some of these problems. It suggested that for a fraction of a second at the beginning of the universe, it expanded at an exponentially fast rate. But even this theory left some questions unanswered.

In the early 1990s Moffat proposed a radical alternative theory: that the speed of light was faster closer to the time of the big bang. His early calculations suggested that light travelled as much as 1,030 times faster than its present value (186,000 miles per second) just following the explosive beginning of the universe.

Moffat's unconventional theory sent waves through the physics community. "When you start to change physics on a fundamental level, when you start to change Einstein's theory, you're changing our whole understanding of space-time," Moffat says.

Last month theoretical astrophysicist Joao Maguelijo of Imperial College London published Faster than the Speed of Light, a new book describing his theories on a variable speed of light and acknowledging Moffat's groundbreaking work.

In August 2002 the journal Nature published a paper by Paul Davies from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, a followup on other papers based on Moffat's theory.

"Had I not been aware of John's work, I would not have myself made a small contribution to this field," Davies says. "John has shown how it is possible to think outside the square when confronting some of the puzzles of cosmology.

"In particular, his cosmological solutions seem to be in good agreement with the remarkable new astronomical results showing that the fine structure constant seems to have varied over cosmological history."

This work may herald a major reinterpretation of cosmological data, Davies adds, and require important changes to the conceptual scheme used as a framework for cosmology over the last half century.

But Moffat has his detractors within the physics community. Michael Duff, director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Michigan and a long-time friend of Moffat, has published rebuttals of Moffat's theory.

"Moffat has lots of provocative ideas," says Duff. "He's contributing to the debate, so although I have to disagree with him, he's every bit entitled to express his opinion, and he does so quite effectively. I happen to disagree with him."

Duff suggests that proponents of the changing speed of light theory are confusing a change in physics with a change in the units used to measure it. Asking whether the speed of light has changed over cosmological time scales is like asking whether the number of litres to a gallon has changed," he says, adding that those who take Moffat's view are at risk of drawing false conclusions.

But the publication of Davies' paper, along with the increased profile of the changing speed of light theory, gives Moffat a certain sense of vindication.

Although retired, he regularly publishes papers on the topic and recently spoke at international conferences in France and Portugal. And while he acknowledges that his controversial theory has detractors, he is pleased that his model is undergoing rigorous scientific testing.

"The physics community is a very conservative community, and so it should be," says Moffat. "This is not a trivial matter. You don't just go around changing paradigms in science willy-nilly."

Nicolle Wahl is a news services officer with the department of public affairs.

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Researchers Conduct Most Sensitive Search For New Forces
Boulder - Mar 03, 2003
University of Colorado at Boulder researchers have conducted the most sensitive search to date for gravitational-strength forces between masses separated by only twice the diameter of a human hair, but they have observed no new forces.

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