Gordin, Michael D., American Scientist
PHYSICS Everyman's Physics PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. Margaret Wertheim, ? + 323 pp. Walker and Company, 2011. $27.
Many people enjoy doing physics, and the vast majority of them work as professional scientists. Margaret Wertheim's Physics on the Fringe, however, is about the minority, those who devote a significant portion of their lives to investigating the structure of the universe at their kitchen tables while their families sleep. These individuals (those she discusses are, with one exception, all men) did not train as scientists and then fail to find employment in their chosen field. And they are not amateurs who study physics textbooks and read scholarly journals. They are at the fringe, a place most of us ignore completely.
That is because the fringe is, well, fringy. Among Wertheim's protagonists are those who deny quantum mechanics, postulate new structures for atoms, revive the ether or reject special relativity, and just about all of them. despise general relativity. They self-publish their theories - sometimes they just photocopy handwritten manuscripts^ - and circulate them among scientists worldwide, who usually end up tossing them in the wastebasket. Wertheim, an accomplished science writer, has collected such texts for years now and sympathetically narrates many of them for us. Such ephemera are very hard to come by, given their frequent encounters with the trash heap, and her archival efforts are to be lauded (as is the renewed attention she brings to mathematician Augustus De Morgan's delightful 1872 book, A Budget of Paradoxes, which catalogs the rejectamenta of the science of his day). She wants us to take these "outsider physicists" seriously, not as a kooky cultural phenomenon, but as people actually doing science in a way that demands as much attention from mainstream science as folk art now claims from the elite art community.
The analogy with art is a touchstone for Wertheim. Her attraction to these theories is at root deeply aesthetic. She is fondest of those fringe physicists who have an eye for the catching illustration or the beautiful color scheme, and she has curated the work of one of them, Jim Carter, for an art gallery and also made a documentary film about him. (Sadly, there are not enough images in the book.) Much of her narrative is devoted to the story of Carter, who has not just a breathtakingly broad theory of life, the universe and everything - from the Big Bang (or, as he puts it, the Grandfire) to a four-sex theory of human relationships - but also a deft artistic sense.
Wertheim really likes Carter. And, reading this at times beautifully written book, we like him too, and we like her for liking him. The most vividly crafted and strongest parts of the book are devoted to Carter's curious path to physics, and also the explications of his theories. One wishes for even more of the latter, especially the mind-blowing nongravity theory. Carter lives in his own trailer park in rural Washington state and loves to do what he considers theoretical physics, without the ornate mathematics of cutting-edge string phenomenology or inflationary cosmology. Since he makes quite a good living (a great story in itself, having to do with a brainstorm he had while abalone diving), he can afford to pursue his physics for the joy of it. And unlike many of his peers in the half-invisible world of fringe physics - many of them members of the Natural Philosophy Association - Carter bears silence from the establishment "stoically," convinced that he is right and will win out in the end.
Wertheim thinks it is wrong that men like Carter are frozen out of mainstream science. Wouldn't the world be better if, in the evocative phrase of Mao Zedong, we let "a hundred flowers blossom" and granted these men some recognition? She stakes her claim using a historical case study and a contemporary one. In order to show that Carter's theory of "circlons" - toroidal coiled springs of various sizes that he believes undergird all matter and energy - is worth scientists' regard, she narrates the theory of vortex atoms proposed by Peter Guthrie Tait and William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin). …