About five years is all that it takes for physics to morph from the concrete to the abstract. In ninth grade, students roll balls down incline planes to demonstrate Newton’s laws governing motion. By freshman year of college, those same young people are grappling with the insane-seeming mathematical implications of modern physics, with light acting as particle and wave simultaneously and with particles popping into existence and evaporating just as quickly.
The more physicists discover about our universe, the more esoteric it gets, and this tendency has bolstered the ranks of “outsider physicists’’ - people, mostly with no formal training in physics, who develop their own theories, only to see them languish in obscurity, ignored by the establishment.
In “Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything,’’ science writer Margaret Wertheim muses about what this all means and tells the story of James Carter, one of the more interesting outsiders she has encountered in her many years on the beat. Wertheim’s descriptions - of Carter and various other outsiders, both contemporary and past, and of their ideas and motivations - are much more gripping than her broader argument, making for an interesting but uneven book.
Wertheim’s story centers around the adventurous Carter, a Washington trailer-park owner who has been working on his theory, in which everything in the universe is composed of tiny ring-shaped particles, for decades. Carter is clearly brilliant in certain ways - he makes a comfortable living selling a device he invented to raise objects that have sunk underwater - but lacks formal training in physics and rejects the idea that it should be left only to those who can understand pages of hieroglyphic calculus.
Through Carter and others of his ilk, Wertheim muses about the prospect of physics becoming a more open endeavor, one in which the Carters of the world can participate.
Arguments about what it means to be an “expert,’’ about the “gatekeepers’’ of certain academic communities, are the stuff of endless hours of debate. Still, certain things should be clear by now, and Wertheim’s argument suffers from a fair bit of conflation.
Quantum theory and special and general relativity (which Carter, like many outsider physicists, rejects) aren’t entrenched for no reason. They seem to describe the world in a real way - having proven empirically robust and useful in various applications. Microchips, GPS satellites, and many other inventions rely on the remarkably precise predictions they make about how matter and energy interact. Wertheim points this out, but fails to adequately address the obvious question - given these theories’ successes, is it really all that much to ask that an outsider theory provide at least as much explanatory power?
On the other hand, the tendency of high-level quantum theorizing to lean heavily on math raises concerns. Wertheim writes about a 2003 conference on “string cosmology’’ she attended, where experts spun out mind-melting, as-yet-untestable theories about things like multiverses and vibrating strings (the central idea of string theory, which could provide an explanation for how the entire physical world works, an idea that has taken physics by storm in recent years). When she asked the professor who had organized the conference about “a particularly dazzling talk,’’ he responded with enthusiasm, but added, “Of course there’s not a shred of evidence for anything the fellow said.’’ In other words, these theories really are just math, and the sort of math that branches off in a trillion directions, dazzling all who gaze in its direction.
Wertheim is right to point out that this is a troubling trend. But it isn’t an insider/outsider problem, really, since many insiders have forcefully critiqued the superstringing of physics, the tendency, as Wertheim puts it, for enthusiasm about “possibilities inherent in the math’’ rather than those revealed by “physical discoveries.’’
Some outsider theories of physics might be evocative and beautiful, but if their proponents haven’t done the legwork (read: math) to show why they can compete with other, more established theories, why should we listen to them? Why should physics be an open endeavor in the same way most people would agree art should be (an argument Wertheim hints at repeatedly)? Since she sidesteps these questions, “Physics on the Fringe,’’ while often fascinating, doesn’t quite reach its potential.