I'm Amazed by the Sheer Tenacity of Outsider Science
Margaret Wertheim is a science writer with degrees in physics and mathematics. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, and is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers, a history of physics and religion, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, and most recently, Physics on the Fringe. In her pioneering work in new methods of science communication, she founded the nonprofit Institute For Figuring, through which she organized the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a touring exhibition at the intersection of science and art. The IFF's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project is perhaps the biggest art/science community project in the world. More than 5000 people from New York and London, to Riga and Cape Town, have actively contributed pieces to Crochet Reef exhibitions. As of mid-2011, more than 3 million people had seen these shows.
The people who build their own theories of the universe tend to work alone and that is both a wonderful thing because it means they have the courage to create their own theory of reality basically with very little help and I do think it takes some real courage to do this, to be, as it were, a disruptive innovator.
At the same time it puts you in a very big dilemma because if you’ve built your theory of your universe on your own and the guy over there has built his theory of the universe on his own and we’ve both got completely different theories on what common grounds do we meet? And this actually is the problem.
When one goes to meetings of something like The Natural Philosophy Alliance Association of all of these outsider physicists it is a bit uncanny. It’s a bit surreal because there are so many different competing theories of the universe and they often share nothing in common, not even the basic assumptions of what science does and so it is kind of like watching a whole lot of things kind of bubble into being. Each one is saying I'm the true and ultimate one, but who is going to stop and pay attention to everybody else if what you’re doing is basically waiting for your own turn to present your own personal theory of the universe?
Mainstream science also has this issue too at the moment. If you go to string cosmology conferences there are so many different ideas in string theory about the way the universe could be and we don’t know yet at this point in time if any of them will turn out to be validated because there isn’t any empirical evidence for any of it. So the problem for the, as it were, disruptive innovator occurs whether you’re a disruptive innovator in the mainstream and more extremely if you’re a disruptive innovator outside of the mainstream because anybody who is producing radical thoughts, who is trying to as it were fundamentally change the foundation of what we think about the world is by necessity proposing that we move away from everything else that we’ve already known and accepted and that’s pretty confronting to everybody.
I think the biggest problem for these individuals who I'm following in my book is that they don’t even share the, as it were, communal grounding that the mainstream shares. At least mainstream physicists even if they have their different competing ideas about where we go next they do share the foundation of general relativity and special relativity. They do share the founding of quantum mechanics and they are all schooled in that, but my guys they don’t often share anything at all and so it is a very lonely endeavor and sometimes it’s really hard to see how they have the courage to go on. I mean sometimes I'm just impressed by the sheer tenacity and perseverance that they have.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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