Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything

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In 1993, Jim Carter, a trailer park owner in Enumclaw, Washington, sent out to a select group of scientists a letter announcing the publication of a book in which he proposed a complete alternative theory of physics. Gravity and matter, the periodic table, and the creation of the universe-all these Carter explained through wildly creative ideas perfected through backyard experiments using garbage cans and a disco fog machine to make giant smoke rings.

For the past fifteen years,...

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Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything

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In 1993, Jim Carter, a trailer park owner in Enumclaw, Washington, sent out to a select group of scientists a letter announcing the publication of a book in which he proposed a complete alternative theory of physics. Gravity and matter, the periodic table, and the creation of the universe-all these Carter explained through wildly creative ideas perfected through backyard experiments using garbage cans and a disco fog machine to make giant smoke rings.

For the past fifteen years, acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of Jim Carter and other mavericks and outsiders who invent alternate theories of the universe. By considering the motivations behind their do-it-yourself theories and homemade experiments, Wertheim raises the question of what role an amateur can play in relationship to science. Deeply human, literally fantastical, infused with wit and humor, Physics on the Fringe challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With insight, wit, and warmth, Wertheim (Pythagoras’ Trousers) offers a look into the hearts and minds of the “outsider” physicists: solitary figures who, usually with little or no formal training, strive to explain our world. Wertheim builds the book around the affable Jim Carter, explorer, self-taught physicist, trailer park owner, and proponent of circlon synchronicity, with atoms shaped like tiny circles of coiled spring. Carter is one of thousands of outsider theorists with their own books and papers often patterned “ an abundant use of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!!” Those included in this special breed of scientist feel alienated by accepted physics, from gravity to the space-time continuum. Often their work recreates or builds upon concepts proposed and discarded hundreds of years ago. A chapter is dedicated to A Budget of Paradoxes, a collection of alternative science theories compiled in the 18th century by mathematician Augustus De Morgan. NASA’s brief Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project even hoped to exploit outsider ideas, whereas the complex wonderland of mainstream string theories seems to echo the work of fringe theorists. Readers may hope for a deeper look into outsider theories past and present, but this sympathetic portrayal of one outsider’s work offers an entry point into a fascinating corner of pseudoscience. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Margaret Wertheim writes beautifully, passionately, and with great humanity about a most unusual mind. This book is ultimately about big things: What is science? What is the universe? And who says?"—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein“With a vivid storyteller’s glee, Margaret Wertheim spins us one of those wide looping yarns that starts out all in good antic fun, only to become more and more confoundingly profound.  Her sagas of outsider physicists open out onto some of the most intriguing of questions, not least of which are: Who and what gives anyone the right to decide on the legitimacy of anyone else’s passions, on what gets to be deemed ‘in bounds’ and what not?”—Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder “Margaret Wertheim's fascinating portrait of Jim Carter wonderfully captures both the pathos and the brilliance hidden in a venerable tradition of science: the quixotic amateur who thinks he might have figured out the answer to the mysteries of the universe.” —Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century"Physics on the Fringe is a compelling, sympathetic study of the outsiders who challenge the gates of official science with impassioned theories of the universe, much the way outsider artists challenged the art establishment.”—Lisa Stone, curator, Roger Brown Study Collection, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago"Maverick science writer Wertheim challenges the right of the scientific establishment to lay claim to the position of gatekeepers of truth… Wertheim raises an important question with broader ramifications." – Kirkus

"[An] informative, often witty overview of ‘outsider physicists’…the crown jewel in her menagerie of eccentric visionaries is James Carter, a do-it-yourself mechanic whose theory of everything has been percolating for five decades….far from belittling Carter, Wertheim uses his inspiring example as a potent reminder that today’s cranks may be deemed tomorrow’s geniuses." – Booklist  

"With insight, wit, and warmth, Wertheim offers a look into the hearts and minds of the "outsider" physicists… an entry point into a fascinating corner of pseudoscience." – Publishers Weekly


"[A] compassionate look at those on the fringe…Wertheim covers new ground in this treatment of how science is communicated and what it means for scientific ideas that aren’t part of the discussion…Both conversational and easy to read, this is an accessible guide to the world of the weird." – Library Journal

"Fascinating, bizarre, and provocative…[a] brilliant thesis…Any reader who found pleasure and excitement in The Men Who Stare at Goats or Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons will derive similar joy from this finely wrought, sympathetic, and stimulating survey of gonzo ingenuity in the service of science." – Barnes & Noble Review

"Delightful…However misguided, the characters in Physics on the Fringe are their own men, doing their own work, like Newton, Faraday, and other past heroes. In some ways, Wertheim’s book is a paean to small science." – The American Scholar

"A compelling study…Wertheim unfolds a fascinating chronicle of such ‘down the rabbit hole’ thinking, but far from taking the ironic high ground, the tone is respectful and sympathetic." – The Outsider


"Entertaining and philosophically provocative…Wertheim serves up her philosophical punchline toward the end of her book when she turns her attention to mainstream physics and cosmology. She [senses] that some popular suppositions—notably the notion that reality consists of extremely tiny strings wriggling in hyperspaces of a dozen or more dimensions, or that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes—verge on pseudoscience, because they are even less experimentally testable than Carter's circlon theory… On the other hand, Wertheim is gently, affectionately skeptical of the outsider physicists, too…She nonetheless suggests that, given how far mainstream physics has drifted from a grounding in empirical evidence, perhaps we should judge all physics theories according to their beauty, elegance, and craftsmanship. And just as the art world occasionally embraces outsiders who lack formal training, so perhaps physics—and physics writers—should look more favorably upon the imaginings of autodidacts like Carter." – Chronicle of Higher Education

"For the past 15 years, Margaret Wertheim has been collecting similar works by such hermit scientists, or what she calls "outsider physicists." With the patience of Job she has undertaken the task of carefully reading as many "theories of everything" as she could get her hands on. In "Physics on the Fringe," Ms. Wertheim takes us on a tour of "outsider" ideas and with an eye toward challenging our preconceptions of what science is, how it works and who it is for. As you'd expect, the book is entertaining—even laugh-out-loud funny in places—, but it's equally enlightening. In an elegant narrative Ms. Wertheim has taken on one of the knottiest conundrums in the philosophy of science, the demarcation problem—that is, how to find criteria to define the boundary between science and pseudoscience….let's not dismiss outsiders before giving them their day in court, as Ms. Wertheim has done in this splendid book." – The Wall Street Journal

"Wertheim, an accomplished science writer, has collected such [fringe] texts for years now and sympathetically narrates many of them for us. Such ephemera are very hard to come by, given their frequent encounters with the trash heap, and her archival efforts are to be lauded (as is the renewed attention she brings to mathematician Augustus De Morgan’s delightful 1872 book, A Budget of Paradoxes, which catalogs the rejectamenta of the science of his day). She wants us to take these "outsider physicists" seriously, not as a kooky cultural phenomenon, but as people actually doing science in a way that demands as much attention from mainstream science as folk art now claims from the elite art community… [a] beautifully written book…Wertheim shows us just how muddy the waters are on the border between what is classed as "legitimate" and what as "fringe." " – American Scientist

"Wertheim shows that there always have been passionate amateurs storming the gates of mainstream science, and she considers the profound need these outsiders have to define the world on their own terms." – Baltimore Sun

Library Journal
What does it mean to be a scientific outsider and question contemporary paradigms? Wertheim (Pythagoras' Trousers; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace) describes the historical background of several nontraditional ideas in this collection of outsider theories in physics, focusing on Jim Carter, creator of the Absolute Motion Institute, in the book's middle section. Rather than an exposé, the book is an objective, compassionate look at those on the fringe—individuals with unconventional and potentially revolutionary ideas about the nature of the universe that challenge the status quo. The text's final section discusses the broader implications of the insular culture of theoretical science. Wertheim covers new ground in this treatment of how science is communicated and what it means for scientific ideas that aren't part of the discussion. Her previous work provides the best comparison with this one, as well as older historical works such as August De Morgan's A Budget of Paradoxes. VERDICT Both conversational and easy to read, this is an accessible guide to the world of the weird, although a bit long in the middle section and brief in the final. Both practicing and casual scientists will find value in the content. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/11.]—Elizabeth Brown, Binghamton Univ. Libs., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802778727
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 2/26/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,368,029
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Wertheim is a science writer who has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired, and many other publications, and is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. She founded the nonprofit Institute For Figuring, through which she created the "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef" project, which is now the largest participatory art/science project in the world. She lives in Los Angeles, California. Visit her website:

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2011

    Mostly fluff

    I thought this might be intersting, but I couldn't even finish it. There more description about where a guy lives than there is about his hypotheses.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 7, 2011

    Boldly Meritorious, yet Flawed

    Being someone who has more than dabbled in many of the obscure subjects covered, I found this book a fascinating consolidation. But I have reservations. The main human subject, James Carter, is certainly an industrious and imaginative fellow, but I think the appellation, "Leonardo of outsiders" exaggerates the value of his work. Carter's "theory" of microcosmic matter, which proposes, in essence, to replace Schroedinger's wave equation with a predictively barren scheme of "Circlons," will arouse little interest outside the art gallery.

    The book's most valuable insight is the striking parallel drawn between the collective works of outsiders and what passes for serious physics by academic insiders. Wertheim characterizes the activities of the avant garde string and multiverse cosmology theorists as the more bizarre of the two--a correct assessment, in my view.

    Finally, Physics on the Fringe--as with the latest edition of Carter's book, The Other Theory of Physics (OTP)--suffers from a serious omission. In earlier editions of Carter's work, he points out that his model of gravity can be tested with a simple experiment. Being familiar with the development of Carter's work, Wertheim mentions the experiment. But she does not describe it, either graphically or verbally. In the 2011 edition of OTP, Carter does not even mention the experiment. Why not?

    Regardless of the predictive uselessness of Carter's Circlon theory, his gravity model makes a robust prediction by which it can be definitively put on the chopping block. The blade breaks or the theory breaks. This is what science is supposed to be about: making predictions based on hypotheses and TESTING them. Both outsiders and the latest generation of insiders sadly neglect this fact. Wertheim could have done a better job of pointing this out.

    I give the book a high grade because it is very well written and because it is exceptional for exposing a side to the study of physical reality that is otherwise obscenely overshadowed by the entertainment industry that has become of modern fundamental physics.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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