DIY Physics: It's Not Brain Surgery

What's the Big Idea?

"Your Gravity Theory Sucks!" Margaret Wertheim was surprised to find this comment on an order form for a self-published book called The Other Theory of Physics, written by James Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, WA. Unlike other so-called "outsider physicists" she had encountered, apparently Carter had a sense of humor. 

Carter also seemed to have a healthy ego. After all, Carter proposed a complete alternative theory of physics, lashing out against what he called "the virus" of quantum theory, "a basket of abstractions that had mired the science in a mathematical abyss." In his alternative theory of everything, Carter explained concepts such as gravity and matter, the periodic table and the creation of the universe through "wildly creative ideas dreamed up during a life spent as a gold miner and abalone diver."

Jim Carter's periodic table showing the circlon-based structure of each element.

According to Wertheim, Carter was at least in part a product of his rebellious times. In 1974, just as the Sex Pistols unleashed "their brand of anarchy as an inspiration to unschooled genius everywhere," Wertheim writes, "Jim Carter was channeling the ethos of the time through the lens of theoretical physics, mounting a one-man assault on the foundations of science with the hubris of a King's Road punk."

Wertheim, who tells the story of outsider science in her new book Physics on the Fringe explains the phenomenon as a reaction to the fact that mainstream physics theories have become so highly technical that they have become inaccessible to almost everybody, even trained physicists. 

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What's the Significance?

According to Wertheim, one of the major issues facing theoretical physics today is there are so many competing theories. How do we decide which ones to pay attention to? That becomes a very practical economic question when we consider, for instance, the amount of money being spent in order to find evidence to support string theory, "particularly most recently with the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Particle Accelerator in Europe." While very little evidence has been found so far, Wertheim asks "are we going to build another generation of particle accelerators, which will cost tens of billions of dollars?"

We obviously need gatekeepers to decide where the money goes, Wertheim notes. And yet, in this context, what role can an amateur play in science? Wertheim writes:


To which category does theoretical physics belong: Is it in a class with brain surgery, which fundamentally demands a degree, or is it more appropriately grouped with art and literature? In short, should theoretical physics be done only by those with recognized credentials? Or is it a field open to anyone who wants to have a go?

In other words, does the democratization of the means of production in the arts -- what Wertheim calls "one of the hallmarks of the enlightenment" -- apply to physics as well? Look at the benefits we have achieved in the arts. Wertheim notes that three hundred years ago "almost no one would even hear a violin play, but now anyone can download samples of the London Philharmonic and create a symphony in their own bedroom." Or compare the state of literacy from past centuries with today's DIY culture in which "anyone with a laptop can write their own book and actually publish it online."

And yet, academic physicists have resisted this trend, meaning "none of us will ever see the four-dimensional spacetime of general relativity or touch the eleven-dimensional manifold of string theory," Wertheim writes. Instead of feeling "at home in the universe," most non-physicists, Wertheim argues, are completely lost by the mathematical abstraction of modern physics. To Wertheim, this means that "humanity's dialogue with the physical world has been hijacked by a group of experts who are trying to deny the rest of us participation in the conversation."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


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