22 June 2012


Margaret Wertheim. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything. Walker and Co., 2011.

As the author, a science journalist, points out, there is growing interest in ‘outsider art’, art from outside the academic and art establishment. She here examines the scientific equivalent of this, ‘outsider science’, the science that is produced by those outside the scientific establishment, those who inhabit the fringes and produce their own home-made cosmologies.
Wertheim has been assiduously collecting these and provides a number of examples, before concentrating on the work of one of these outsiders, Jim Carter a trailer park owner and successful inventor from Washington State. She weaves these stories of the outsiders around a history of physics.

The great majority of these ‘independent thinkers’ aim at a simplification of science. They are alienated by the esoteric nature of much of modern physics, truly understandable only by the small minority who can penetrate the secret languages of advanced mathematics (the Latin of our times as she suggests). What drives them is not the dream of some new and extraordinary horizon for physics, that will push further beyond the boundaries of imagination and language, as does the mainstream, but the desire for something more concrete, more traditional, folksy, homely. In some ways these thinkers are the antithesis of the paranormalist, for while the latter usually chide mainstream science for being too materialist, the independent thinkers tend to chide it for not being materialist enough, for being too esoteric and occult.

For many of these thinkers, particularly those who are engineers like Carter, the demand is for a return to the mechanical science that was the old dominant before the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics. Wertheim points to the parallel with the development of Protestantism, which argued that the word of God should be available to all and not just an elite, so the outsider scientists demand that the word of nature should be available to all, and not just to the mathematically trained elite. In some sense these theorists seem to be scientific fundamentalists, analogous to the religious fundamentalists, who are unhappy with metaphors and demand that everything be literally and mechanically true.

There is another parallel with religion. The fact that these thinkers produce tract after tract, send them out to academics, whom they must know will just consign them to the waste paper basket, brave endless derision, suggests that they are on fire with a vision, like religions leaders and prophets who are seized by a vision from the deep imagination which they are almost forced the express at any cost. The same can be said of artists both insider and outsider. There is also a religious dimension to mainstream science often expressed in the writings of popularises, even avowedly atheist ones such as Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins. Science, theology and art are all instruments of creativity, all, at least in their expression, are products of the human imagination.

Jim Carter, the guy whose story is at the centre of this book, is an example in point. His creativity takes the form of the visual and the concrete, his illustrations are as much outsider art as outsider science, and as mentioned before, he is a successful inventor. Yet the examples given of him trying to put his ideas into words, fall dead, they are just turgid.

Wertheim shows how his central theme - matter is comprised of knotted things that can be compared with either smoke rings or knotted springs - compares in some respects with the ideas of Lord Kelvin and P. G Tait, who in the late 19th century envisioned atoms as ‘knots’ in an endless regress of ethers, and that idea bears some similarities with modern string theories. The strange cosmology of Carter has elements which reprise these traditional themes, and which at times look like something which might interest a Jungian analyst. There is a sort of crazy beauty about it all. But then we come to his theory of gravity, which essentially is that there isn’t any, things do not fall to the earth, the earth, which is constantly expanding, is rising up to meet them!!!. In fact everything is constantly expanding including the stuff falling (I would expect most 12 year old children to be able to see the logical contradiction in that argument.)

If by one definition of mythology, we say that mythology is an attempt to put into ordinary human language, that which is beyond all language, then all linguistic explanations are by definition are myths. One thing that does separate the mainstream from the fringe, is that when the mainstream uses terms like ‘strings’ or ‘holograms’ to elucidate certain points, they understand that these are metaphors representing that for which there is no true expression in any verbal language, whereas the fringe takes these metaphors literally. It is a moot point as to whether the mathematics is some expression of the “true reality” or is itself a deeper metaphor.

If these outsider scientists can be compared with ‘outsider religious’, then we may be seeing a process of denominalisation, with the formation of a body called the Natural Philosophy Association”. This may well parrot, or parody,the professionalization of mainstream science which took part in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, the very thing which the outsiders are protesting. – Peter Rogerson.

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