Outsider Physicists

By: Joshua Glenn
November 23, 2011

An interlocking "circlon" model of elements developed by fringe theorist Jim Carter

HiLobrow has a weakness for outsider intellectuals, so we’re thrilled to announce that Margaret Wertheim’s long-awaited book Physics on the Fringe has just been published by Walker & Co. (I interviewed Wertheim last year about her Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project.)

There’s a good Q&A (login required) with Wertheim by Jascha Hoffman in the November 3 issue of Nature. In it, she suggests that fringe theorists who probe the cosmos in their own way are the scientific equivalent of outsider artists. Here’s an excerpt:

NATURE: Who are these physics outsiders?
WERTHEIM: Quite a few are engineers, but they come from all walks of life. One is a retired California supreme court judge, another is a backyard car salesman. They have their own association, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, with a database listing annual meetings, published proceedings and articles by more than 2,000 theorists. One outsider I’ve met is a famous Hollywood film editor. He is obsessed with an eighteenth-century equation called Bode’s law, which supposedly describes planetary orbits. There’s a well-known Russian engineer who claimed to have invented a gravity-reducing device. And one Dutch theorist has proposed that the Universe is “a bouncing machine” shaped like a giant “twelve-lobed raspberry” that spews particles from a “Giant Virgin Black Hole”.

NATURE:What drew you to Jim Carter, the star of Physics on the Fringe?
WERTHEIM:One of his books landed in my hands in 1993. He had a sense of humour and I was captivated by his intricate diagrams showing the ring-shaped particles, or ‘circlons’, that he believes compose all matter. His DIY approach to particle physics is part of a wider philosophy. He fixes his own cars and has built his own house, complete with a secret cave. He owns a company that makes devices for lifting sunken boats, and has gone hunting for a giant meteorite. It is not surprising that he has his own theories of the Universe too. His total physical and intellectual vision of science is antiquated but beautiful. It makes me wistful for the gentleman scientists of the nineteenth century.

NATURE:Why listen to outsider physicists?
WERTHEIM:They may not be Albert Einstein or Paul Dirac. Their ideas aren’t going to be taught at universities such as Princeton and Harvard. But their theories are a store of imaginative thinking about how our Universe might be constructed. This is an important cultural phenomenon — like studying the diaries of foot soldiers alongside those of generals. Some of the works, especially Carter’s, are also aesthetic achievements. Most of all, they give us a window on to the role of science in our lives. These people want to be at home in the Universe. They believe that science can provide us with an understanding of the cosmos, but feel alienated by mainstream theories.

Put Wertheim’s book on your gift list for free-thinking science enthusiasts in your life… It’s available here.

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