Physicists are like the rock stars of science," according to Barnes & Noble science buyer Vicki Powers, who also regards scientists as today's philosophers, attempting to answer the big questions of life and the universe. It doesn't hurt that younger scientists have thrown away their plastic pocket protectors and let their hair down.
Take 35-year-old Portuguese physicist João Magueijo of Imperial College in England. Even his agent, Susan Rabiner, describes him as a "stud muffin," using the M.I.T. argot. "There's definitely a cachet associated with sophisticated scientists," she explained, adding, "They're no longer nerds."
Or impoverished, for that matter. Within a week of purchasing Magueijo's Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation (Feb. 1) with a preemptive bid well into six figures, Perseus Publishing made back its advance. As of this writing, foreign rights have been sold to publishers in 10 countries, including Random House in the U.K., Bertelsmann in Germany and Italy's Rizzoli. In another preempt, Penguin Books purchased paperback rights for mid-six figures in December.
What makes Faster Than the Speed of Light so hot? For starters, Magueijo is not afraid to question Einstein's theory of relativity, one of the long-held tenets of physics, which assumes that the speed of light is a constant. On top of that, his unimposing 279-page book reveals that he likes to party, and gets some of his best ideas the morning after. In the book, which describes what it's like to pursue a theoretical idea, Magueijo pinpoints when he first thought of VSL (varying speed of light theory): "It was a miserable rainy morning—typical English weather—and I was walking across [St. John's College's] sports fields, nursing a bad hangover." Initial reaction to his idea was not good, said Magueijo: "People would shake their heads, at best say, 'Shut up and don't be stupid.' "
VSL offers an alternative to inflation, the idea that the universe expanded faster immediately after the Big Bang than it does today. Instead, according to VSL, the Big Bang was possible because light traveled faster back then. VSL gained credence when Magueijo, along with Andy Albrecht of the University of California at Davis and John Barrow of Cambridge, wrote an article published in the Physical Review in 1999. John Moffat of the University of Toronto also deserves credit for first publishing his work on a similar idea in 1992. But what popularized VSL beyond the science community, at least in the U.K., was a TV documentary called Einstein's Biggest Blunder that aired two years ago.
As it turns out, Magueijo could be correct. Research on distant quasars by John Webb of the University of New South Wales in Australia indicates that light speed may indeed vary, although Magueijo estimates that confirmation of Webb's work is still two or three years away. Even if VSL turns out to be false, Magueijo believes Faster Than the Speed of Light will hold appeal as "the story of what happens if you have a crazy idea and follow it to the end," he told PW. "The problem in science is that there's a big gap between people who do science and the bureaucrats."
First alerted to the book by a sampler distributed at BEA, booksellers agree that Magueijo's book is likely to find a receptive audience: Faster Than the Speed of Light will launch with a 30,000-copy first printing. Associate publisher and marketing director Elizabeth Carduff, who arranged Magueijo's U.S. tour, which begins later this month, noted, "Science is hotter than it used to be. This has been the easiest events calendar I've ever booked. With the exception of the Hayden Planetarium and the Smithsonian, which I booked very far in advance, virtually every bookseller I talked to knew about the book already."
In addition to the seven-city tour, which includes stops at Powell's, Harvard Bookstore and University Bookstore in Washington, Faster Than the Speed of Light will be featured as a Borders
Discovery title and will have a front-of-store stanchion display at Barnes & Noble. Many independents, especially in college communities, are also planning to give it pride of place. "The college is right next to us, and there are a lot of science types and computer types," said Alex Braman, science buyer at Dartmouth Bookstore. "This is the kind of book they're going to love. If anybody's going to buy it, they are."
Although Karen Pennington, inventory director at Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., had some misgivings about the hype surrounding Faster Than the Speed of Light and had heard negative comments on VSL from a physicist at Stanford's Linear Accelerator, she ultimately decided to increase her order. "Science does very well for us," says Pennington. "If the book is positioned correctly, it could be contagious."
What attracted Perseus senior editor Amanda Cook to the book was the writing. "Magueijo is a natural storyteller. I could hear Richard Feynman's voice: the irreverence, the take-no-prisoners writing style, the willingness to confront the establishment," she said, invoking the spirit of one of Perseus's long-time authors and Magueijo's hero.
Recently the Cambridge, Mass.—based house has begun to seek out a new generation of science writers. "There's definitely a trend," said Cook, "of young, upcoming scientists with original ideas." Early last year, Perseus published Albert-László Barabasi's Linked: The New Science of Networks, which has sold more than 20,000 copies to date. In the spring it will publish zoologist Andrew Parker's In the Blink of an Eye (Apr.) on the Cambrian Explosion, biology's Big Bang.