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For the past fifteen years, acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of "outsider physicists," many without formal training and all convinced that they have found true alternative theories of the universe. Jim Carter, the Einstein of outsiders, has developed his own complete theory of matter and energy and gravity that he demonstrates with experiments in his backyard,-with garbage cans and a disco fog machine he makes smoke rings to test his ideas about atoms. Captivated by the ...
For the past fifteen years, acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of "outsider physicists," many without formal training and all convinced that they have found true alternative theories of the universe. Jim Carter, the Einstein of outsiders, has developed his own complete theory of matter and energy and gravity that he demonstrates with experiments in his backyard,-with garbage cans and a disco fog machine he makes smoke rings to test his ideas about atoms. Captivated by the imaginative power of his theories and his resolutely DIY attitude, Wertheim has been following Carter's progress for the past decade.
Centuries ago, natural philosophers puzzled out the laws of nature using the tools of observation and experimentation. Today, theoretical physics has become mathematically inscrutable, accessible only to an elite few. In rejecting this abstraction, outsider theorists insist that nature speaks a language we can all understand. Through a profoundly human profile of Jim Carter, Wertheim's exploration of the bizarre world of fringe physics challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.
"[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
Posted December 7, 2011
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.
Posted December 2, 2011
Posted November 11, 2011
No text was provided for this review.