Mar 9 2012

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim

Lizzie Wade

web exclusive

For fifteen years, science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting alternative theories of the universe. Some are poems, others include hand-drawn diagrams, and a few, at first glance, look like academic papers written by professional physicists. They have been sent to her from all over the world by people desperate to share insights about our universe that have either been rejected, or, more likely, ignored by the scientific establishment. Denis Nevin writes from Queensland, Australia, to inform her that the "Big Bang theory accepted by a majority of scientists constitutes the greatest blunder and misinterpretation in the history of cosmology." Leo Vuyk, from the Netherlands, is working on a theory "that describes our universe as a vast '12 lobed Raspberry in a dodecahedral configuration.'" Peter Jobson, from suburban Sydney, sends a manuscript written in fountain pen and "illustrated with beautiful spidery diagrams"; but despite her best efforts, Wertheim admits, "after several readings I have no idea what he is trying to tell me about the fundaments of being."

In Physics on the Fringe, Wertheim approaches these "outsider physicists" with sincerity and generosity—if not quite an open mind—but is less concerned with their ideas than with what drives them to piece together their own theories of the universe in the first place. These "fringe theorizers... love science and are thrilled by its power," but also "feel alienated by the accounts of reality they read about in science magazines and books." After all, the probabilistic quantum realm, general relativity's warped space-time, and the extra dimensions proposed by string theory have almost nothing to do with the way we experience the world. While most of us at least superficially accept the mainstream view that physics doesn't have to be intuitive so long as it is accurate, outsiders stubbornly insist that their "own experience must be the starting point for [their] understanding of the world." The hallmark of an fringe physicist is the refusal to accept the possibility that the universe might speak a language they cannot understand.

This disconnect between mainstream and fringe physicists first arose in the nineteenth century, when physics—the study of the most basic facts about our universe—began to rely on increasingly abstract mathematics, creating a professional class of physicists and shutting out even the most determined amateurs. Wertheim insightfully identifies the rise of math-heavy field theory, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to describe magnetism, electricity, and light, as both a cause and a consequence of this shift. Armed with new and powerful mathematical tools, physicists began "following the math" toward all sorts of surprising conclusions, ultimately resulting in what Wertheim calls the "post-object worldview" of quantum field theory, in which the sub-atomic particles that make up matter are not solid objects but rather an ephemeral "undulation or ripple in a quantum field."

For most of Physics on the Fringe, Wertheim focuses on the life and work of Jim Carter, an amateur physicist who has spent the last fifty years working on a theory of the universe in which solid, ring-shaped particles called circlons are the building blocks of matter. In Carter's mechanical universe, circlons link together like Legos to form elements in the periodic table, from simple hydrogen to complex plutonium and beyond. (His diagrams of elements look like crocheted granny squares, making his version of the periodic table resemble a colorful afghan.) Despite having received no support from the scientific establishment, Carter says that his theory of matter "is verified by the equations of quantum electrodynamics but… can also be demonstrated with pure logic," and has even done backyard experiments with smoke rings to support his ideas.

While Wertheim never comes close to endorsing Carter's theory, she has enormous respect for his tenacity. At various points in Physics on the Fringe she compares him or his work to Francis Bacon, Lord Kelvin, and Dmitri Mendelev, as well as nearly a dozen other scientists. Some of these parallels feel a bit forced, but they do give Wertheim a compelling way to explore the history of physics that foregrounds its false starts, strange tangents, and dead ends, as well as the idiosyncratic personalities of some of its most famous practitioners. "Quietly and inexorably," she writes, "as I sought to understand what makes him [Carter] tick, I began to realize that I had to reassess what makes the science of physics itself tick."

Especially good is Wertheim's discussion of Michael Faraday, the experimental physicist who did pioneering work on electromagnetism in the early nineteenth century. Faraday grew up poor and began his scientific career as a bottle washer in a laboratory in London's Royal Institution. Like Carter, he had no university education and puzzled through the mysteries of the universe largely on his own. Unlike Carter, he was eventually regarded as a genius and recognized as one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time. In fact, it was Faraday who first developed field theory after sprinkling iron filings near a magnet and observing the predictable patterns they formed. "Ironically," Wertheim writes of Carter, "the one major figure in the history of physics whose life story in some respects paralleled his own had been the source of an idea he could not stomach."

Faraday lived at a time when the boundaries between amateur experimentalist and professional scientist weren't quite as rigid as they are today, but he, too, felt the sting of being ignored by the academy. It wasn't until the more respected physicist James Clerk Maxwell turned the results of Faraday's experiments into differential equations that the physics community embraced field theory, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, the telecommunications industry, home electricity, and quantum mechanics. Faraday's lack of a formal education meant that he couldn't understand Maxwell's equations.

Wertheim is careful to point out that many fields of science are not and should not be open to amateurs; "when it comes to brain surgery, we would like our practitioners fully credentialed," she writes. But theoretical physics has always offered us something more than straight science. It exists alongside of and around experimental evidence, fleshing out our observations with possible explanations and, crucially, predictions about what we might see in the future. In short, Wertheim suggests, theoretical physics offers us verifiable narratives, stories that help us "feel at home in the universe" and that can be just as elegant and profound as literature or philosophy.

Mainstream physicists have long argued that theoretical physics can and should be grouped alongside art, literature, and music as a great cultural achievement. But a defining feature of these creative fields in the modern world is that they are open to anyone—a fact that doesn't threaten the existence of a professional class of artists, writers, and musicians. We are comfortable with the idea that anybody can write, draw, or make music in their spare time, no matter the quality of their output. "Why, then, should we draw a line at theoretical physics?" Wertheim wonders.

Lizzie Wade is a science writer working on a book about the Superconducting Super Collider.