Singing fado in Goa, taking part in a bullfight in Canada or conquering the Uluru in Australia. Scientist, João Magueijo, is so eager to be a part of the places he travels to that the word “trip” just doesn’t suffice.
There’s something about the way he speaks that suggests he’s spent time away from Portugal. It’s not exactly his accent; it’s more of a hint of English in the cadence of his speech. 44-year-old João Magueijo set off as a young Physics graduate to take a PhD at Cambridge. From there he moved to Imperial College London, where he remains as a lecturer. But England is merely where he has stayed put the longest among the many places that entice him.
“Italy!” His reply is impromptu. “It’s a love/hate relationship that began over 20 years ago”, says João Magueijo. He was still an “apprentice scientist” when he ran off in the summer holidays to work as a scientific secretary at a conference centre called Ettore Majorana in Erice, near Palermo. “It’s a beautiful place right on top of a cliff”, he describes. “It’s like being permanently inside a cloud, which is a bit strange in Sicily.” Since then, he’s been captivated by Italy’s hidden charms, especially in the two years it took him to research his last book, A Brilliant Darkness (Basic Books, 2009).
He debuted as an author with Faster than the Speed of Light (Penguin, 2004), which he wrote after experiencing resistance to one of his scientific articles. He aroused controversy by questioning one of the postulates of Einstein’s theory of relativity, defending that the speed of light may not have been constant in the early universe, immediately after the big bang. And it didn’t make him any great friends. The world of science is also a human world and therefore not above human weakness: this was the raw portrait exposed in his first book. Over time, the theory of the variable speed of light has gained further scholarly support, despite still not being exactly mainstream, as Magueijo explains. In any case, he has plenty of other study interests.
Since he’s a top researcher, many of his trips come about as a result of work invitations, even when the destination may seem unlikely. “They organised a summer school that was actually in winter, on the Island of Kish”, he smiles. “And they invited me to give classes. You can imagine how difficult it was to get a visa!” Iran, that’s what the visa said. “At the time, there was great hope that the country was going to open up to the outside, with Khatami as president”, says João Magueijo. The trip also brought about a change in his professional title, he says good humouredly. “I started calling myself a cosmologist, because of the complications of putting the words ‘physicist’ and ‘Iran’ together. It caused a bit of a mix-up when I went back to the States because they thought I had something to do with cosmetics”, he laughs.
It was also science that led him back to India several times and to his beloved Goa. “I love it! I’ve been going to Goa since the 90s, when raves were in full swing. I’m a rave boy!” he says, so as to leave no room for doubt. “At the time, it reminded me a bit of the Alentejo when I was a boy. There was no tap water – you had to go to the spring. And no electricity – it was very primitive. At the same time there was this hippie subculture from the 1960s which was recycled in the rave culture.” The last time he went back, in 2004, he found a very different society. “Loads of mobile phones, electric light everywhere. Civilisation had arrived. Yet, despite the changes, you can still see the delight on his face when he recalls nightfall. “Fontainhas is a neighbourhood in the capital where they only speak Portuguese. When it gets dark, they suddenly start saying ‘boa noite’ to you, he says emotionally, while he recounts stories of fado evenings sung in Goan voices. “It’s the weirdest thing learning to sing fado in Goa. I’d never tried it before, but it’s pretty crazy to be singing a traditional fado song in the middle of a tropical storm, 15 thousand kilometres from the Bairro Alto in Lisbon.”
João Magueijo can’t resist the emigrant world – its quirkiness, the food, the entertainment – and when he’s in London he never misses the Day of Portugal celebrations in a public park on June 10th. But don’t think it’s something he does just once a year, merely to commemorate. He lived in Canada for two years, where he enjoyed the unique environment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which aims to provide top scientists with the ideal conditions for devoting themselves to science. He spent part of the week in Waterloo, but it was Toronto, where he worked as a part-time researcher at the university, that kept him entertained him from Thursday to Sunday. “The summer is amazing! You spend your time at ‘barbacuas’, as the Portuguese say.” You just have to look at the photos to see how genuine his enthusiasm is: “This was an Azorean style bull-fight, with a rope, and they use umbrellas to provoke the creatures. It’s completely illegal, but Canada is huge… And there’s everything you’d expect – the Portuguese flag and even a Benfica hat!” He continues to reel off memories amid laughter, while he comments on the photographs. “And look at that belly! And he’s just a kid. This is Portugal!” Then he adds: “It’s more Portuguese than in Portugal. That’s what Our Beloved Month of August is about”, referring to a well-known film that portrays village life when emigrants return on holiday.
Far away from the vastness of Canada, islands have always fascinated him. “Cape Verde, of course, I’ve been there several times.” He can’t resist having a bit of a dance whenever the music appeals to him. In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives left their mark, for the opposite reason. “You’re alone on an island, but it’s like paradise. Mauritius is far more interesting. It’s really beautiful, like a picture postcard, but it has a bit more life and culture.” In other climes he preferred to backpack, hopping from one island to the next. However, to do so he was obliged to learn … Greek. “The islands are tiny, with 40 or 50 inhabitants who understand nothing but Greek. You have to know at least the basics to be able to make contact.” His father’s training as a Greek teacher was just what he needed to stop the language from being a barrier. Then he comes round to Italy again, this time to share his great love for Pantelleria, very close to Tunisia, though still part of Sicily.
Travelling is also about unexpected encounters with a sometimes painful past. João Magueijo was in Argentina promoting his first book when he saw an old friend, “from the Trotskyite times of the PSR party”. “I soon as I saw him I called his name and he was really embarrassed. He was using an alias so he wouldn’t have any problems with the police and I had no idea; at the time he’d been exiled in Portugal.” Their cathartic conversation lasted well into the night. “I knew that his wife had been arrested, he’d told me part of the stories, but I had no idea that she had been so badly tortured. He told me everything that night. We drank loads; it was really disturbing.”
If Australia were a bit smaller, he would already have covered it all, considering the number of times he’s been there. There’s a good reason for flying so many miles: it’s the birthplace of his long-term girlfriend, Kim. “I know the North and Centre really well, and Adelaide too”. He continues to list places until he recalls an episode in Sydney which could have ended badly. “We stayed for a month in one of those beach suburbs, Coogee. It has these huge waves, but you can swim there and it’s well supervised, it’s not one of the most dangerous …” The tension mounts. “A three or four metre wall of water and you seem pretty small … We have to stay rolled up at the bottom to protect ourselves, but you can’t breathe for… I don’t know… half a minute!”
Australia was also the site of a great revelation, while climbing Uluru. João Magueijo had been quite ill, which made the climb even more difficult. “It’s funny because it’s part of the rites of passage into adulthood for the indigenous Australians and they don’t like people going up. The worst thing for them would be for someone to die up there”, he explains. “For me, in a way it was the end of a period of sickness and a new beginning.” A confessed atheist, it’s surprising to hear him talk like this. “You’re not expecting it to happen, but it does. It’s hard to explain, it’s something that marks us for life. It’s something very intimate.”
A man of letters
The Portuguese edition was published more than a year after the original version, in English, but to favourable reviews. A Brilliant Darkness (Basic Books, 2009) tells the story of a clever scientist who the author believes would have won the Nobel Prize if he hadn’t disappeared so mysteriously. In addition to its scientific content, João Magueijo’s second book has all the ingredients of a good novel and explores the complexities of human nature.
Previously, he had written Faster than the Speed of Light (Penguin, 2004), which sparked a controversy due to the cruelty with which he portrayed the scientific community. It even led Nature magazine to legally impose changes to the British edition in relation to the original American version.
In the meantime, after a bet with friends, he translated into English “one of the two definitive works about the Alentejo”, And what if I was really happy to Die, by Rui Cardoso Martins – the other is Raised from the Ground by José Saramago. “It’s unusual to translate into our second language”, he admits, “but only someone from the Alentejo can truly understand the vitality of Rui’s book”. And as a result of this work his “knowledge of English swear words is amazing”.
by Alda Rocha
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