Physics Paradoxers and Outsiders

As I did – plain and straightforward – normal science, I do not consider to develop my personal Theory of Everything or to build my personal perpetuum mobile. I am pretty conservative with respect to the laws of thermodynamics and just understanding the main orthodox candidates for theories of everything today is already a a larger-than-life task on my to-do-list. I admit that I am the skeptical physicist who sometimes spoils the discussions on “quantum consciousness” and “vitalized water” by asking for experimental conditions, reproducibility, and predictions of theories.

However, I have always been fascinated by the perseverance of physics outsiders who pursue research disconnected from academia – since the very first time I had seen a hand-written manuscript – a refutation of Einstein’s theories, sent to my boss at the university. I have tried to criticize theories only, but not their creators – whose scientific curiosity and creativity I actually do recognize.  Nevertheless, I fully agree with the analysis by Pascal Boyer on this and I second Sean Carroll’s  arguments on what to be demanded from self-proclaimed independent scientists.

My deepest respect still goes to outsiders who speak the mathematical language of advanced physics and are on par with their academic counterparts – such as Garrett Lisi.

So I am asking: Have the boundaries between orthodox science and outsider theories been blurred recently? Is it easier today to do serious research independently? Or has it been that way all the times since Thales et al. had started science in ancient Greece?

Recently I have come across a book that deals exactly with the sociological biotope of physics outsiders: Physics on the Fringe by seasoned science writer Margaret Wertheim. Wertheim introduces the reader to the world of outsiders specifically in theoretical physics, so she does not cover the perpetuum mobile builders. She never uses the derogatory term “crackpots”, but the older term “paradoxers”. The latter has been used by the logician De Morgan who had also collected outsider theories in the 19th century. According to Wertheim he nailed down the weak points of the theories, but he did so in a gentle fashion without attempting to attack the paradoxers as persons.

Wertheim had collected outsider theories in paper for 15 years and she expounds some of the strangest theories. She has a degree in physics and I can relate to her reading experiences: Though outsiders use physics language and terms like energy, gravity, fields a.s.o., you very often cannot grasp the essence of the convoluted theories. Theories are sometimes phrased without using mathematics at all, so they rather resemble literature than science.

After the introduction to the world of outsiders Margaret Wertheim portrays an outstanding outsider – Jim Carter. Carter successfully runs a trailer park after a career that could not have been invented by a screenwriter of Indiana-Jones-type movies: Jim Carter is a former chaser of a lost meteorite, gold digger, abalone diver and he has invented inflatable balloons that allow for lifting stuff sunk to the sea bottom. The latter turned into a lucrative business. In his spare time – after hours of hard, manual work, Carter started to craft a theory to explain atoms, matter and gravity from scratch. In order to elucidate his theories he developed his distinct visual style, blurring the boundaries between science and art.

Some commenters on  state that Wertheim did not scrutinize Carter’s theories as a physicist should do – so that she treated the whole outsider thing with too much compassion and warmth. I really like Wertheim’s attitude and I believe that she has made the following excellent points:

  • Carter experimented with smoke rings and used analogies to smoke ring dynamics as the basis of his atomic theory. This is strikingly similar to ideas on vortex dynamics put forward by Helmholtz and Rayleigh before the advent of special relativity and quantum physics. Wertheim also describes the similarities in the experiments done by early smoke ring researchers and Carter’s experiments to create bigger and bigger rings. Since she is quite a story-teller, the chapters on Carter’s life form a great narrative. If Carter would have lived 150 years earlier he might have become a renowned natural philosopher, a second Faraday.
  • He is an entrepreneur and sort of a MacGyver-like self-trained engineer. His theories might be “crackpottery”, but stuff he built did work. And he worked hard to pursue his private research as a hobby, funded by the revenue made from the trailer park and his other businesses. Being an entrepreneur myself, I do admire this. Carter believes in his theories and he would like to receive acknowledgement of his theories – but according to Wertheim he pursues them for their own sake. So his attitude seems to be close to the spirit of many well-known researchers and philosophers who lived before the times when scientists became professionals. Think of: Spinoza who made his living by grinding lenses, Blaise Pascal who worked as a judge, Leibnitz – the librarian.
  • Through Wertheim’s narrative it becomes clear to some extent why someone would try to re-invent a theory which should explain phenomena that are already explained so well by existing theories. Outsiders do typically not attempt to fill in the gaps only (such as uniting quantum field theory and general relativity) but they try to re-invent physics from scratch. One reason for that is the discomfort with (if not the detesting of) intricate mathematics.
    This is exactly what I had come across as well many times: Outsiders strongly believe that the world need not be so complicated. I could not agree less with the attitude. Nevertheless, I feel the pain of hands-on normal people who consider the world being too complex. I think the true reasons for this are quite complex and this brings us to a discussion on the interdependencies of culture, technology and sociology. Why is it OK (or even the standard) to admit ignorance of natural sciences and mathematics, whereas it is a shame not to be familiar with classics in literature?

The last chapter of the book might come as a surprise to readers who do not follow up on big trends in physics, at least by reading popular science books. However, I would assume that many potential readers of Physics on the Fringe do. The allusion to the probably shaky status of string theory and other theories of everything (based on more than 4 dimensions, brane worlds etc.) was sort of expected. Numerous books and articles have discussed this, see for example Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: String theory is accused of not making predictions in terms of experiment we will ever be able to realize and that there are 10 to the power of 500 different string theory.

As justified as these arguments may be – I do not believe that this is a valid point that brings orthodox science closer to outsider science. Theories created by professional scientists may sound as unworldly as the paradoxer’s theories if presented in plain popular science book English. However, string theory is firmly grounded in quantum field theory. Even if the orthodox theories might not fully unite quantum field theory the general relativity, their creators do respect these theories and try hard to integrate them. The chasm between such a bamboozling theory and a theory cooked up from scratch, not even ignoring our best existing theories, could not be greater.
Yes, it is very likely that Carter would have been able to create original work based on smoke ring dynamics more than 100 years ago. But even back then, he would have needed to catch with the mathematical formulation of what was known already in classical dynamics. Today unfortunately, there is no way around – as Sean Carroll has put it – to know what is already known. It remains a mystery to me why somebody could deny the usefulness of good old quantum mechanics to explain “all of chemistry” or quantum field theory to describe the creation and annihilation of particles.

Physics outsiders now run their own conferences that Wertheim describes as being organized in a fashion very similar to professional physics conferences. So Pascal Boyer’s argument that “crackpots” do not care about other crackpots (just about fighting the establishment) is probably not true any more. Above all, Wertheim brings attention to the NPA – the Natural Philosophy Alliance. Right now, the front page shows a link to an article asking if the current FQXI essay contest might be an option for fringe science to shine. In 2012 essays should discuss: Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong? In order to answer this question, it is in my opinion imperative to really understand our basic physical assumptions. And I do not see how to avoid dealing with the mathematical formulations of these assumptions.

There is one aspect I missed in the book – I would have liked to read more about “professional outsiders” who have been trained as physicists – such as Lisi. Wertheim briefly mentions Stephen Wolfram, but I have not read his book on the foundations of science so I am not qualified to discuss his “outsider score”. Theories of “the standard crackpot” can typically be punctured by physics undergraduates as explained by Boyer. But you require an advanced training in theoretical physics to understand and discuss Lisi’s theory of everything. Or consider the theories by Christoph Schiller: From discussions like this I would conclude that he might score higher on the outsider scale, but his theory is not simply discarded by the scientific community, but are discussed seriously. Corrections are welcome – with a PhD in applied physics I am not qualified to judge Lisi’s or Schiller’s theories and I cannot even judge how easy or difficult it is for a theoretical physics professional to come to a conclusion on such theories (quickly).

Probably this is what Wertheim was aiming at when she told the reader about her impressions of the presentations given a string theory conference – maybe is has become harder and harder for professional physicists themselves to evaluate the theories of their colleagues. After all, this boils down to how much time you can afford to read papers that might not be directly related to your own work. And probably Lee Smolin is correct in attributing the criticism and lack of funding of some alternative theories  to sociology (alternative to string theory in this case, not alternative to orthodox physics).

After all – I do not see any other chance for contributing to that discussion substantially other than by learning about the foundations of physics “the hard way”, that is: by reading text books and original papers. This is what I had in mind when I have blogged about my goals recently.

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