Physics on the Fringe

Bound into the center of Margaret Wertheim’s fascinating, bizarre, and provocative new book is a garish, text-strewn poster which the trained eye immediately and reliably identifies as the work of fabled outsider artist Paul Laffoley, renowned for his mingling of dense blocks of prose with patterned geometrical shapes into such stringent, gallery-approved artworks as “Dimensionality” and “Thanaton III.”

But wait — what’s this? Upon further inspection of the credits, the illustration proves not to be by Laffoley, but rather the work of “outsider scientist” Jim Carter, titled “The Circlon Model of Nuclear Structure.” Moreover, the schematic represents Carter’s very seriously intentioned findings, deriving from fifty years of self-directed study, into the “true” nature of how the universe works, contrary to everything the physics establishment currently preaches.

Here then is graphically displayed Wertheim’s topic and her brilliant thesis: that the “cranks” and “crackpots” lurking on the fringes of the scientific establishment are manifesting the same esthetic impulses that drive outsider artists, but with a slight twist. These “discoverers” or “paradoxers,” as they were called in Victorian times, firmly endorse science’s claim to represent an objectively true taproot into the numinous substratum of creation. So these outsider physicists are simply seeking to participate in the same consciousness-raising enlightenment which all the great scientists have experienced. But, bereft of any actual talents and training demanded by the academic and corporate “hegemony,” they are forced to perform a kind of “hedge science,” like the second-string wizards who can’t make it into Hogwarts.

Trained in math and physics, exhibiting immense empathy and understanding for her subjects, Wertheim first surveys the long history of such “dissident” scientists — more or less coterminous with actual science — focusing on nineteenth-century chronicler and mathematician Augustus De Morgan and his Budget of Paradoxes volume. She makes a catalogue of the specific incriminating traits exhibited by these out-of-the-mainstream amateurs and their self-published theses, and shows how establishment scientists who offer radical new theories — Faraday, Kelvin, Kaluza, Wolfram — differ in degree of intellectual rigor and angle of attack from the rogues. Numerous examples from her own large collection of fringe publications enliven the discussion.

The large middle of the book is Wertheim’s loving and insightful portrait of Jim Carter, the Circlon Science man, a perfect exemplar of the species. Befriending Carter and his family, Wertheim is brilliantly positioned to write his captivating biography, digging deep into the metaphysical guts of Carter’s lifelong mission, and thus extrapolating to other such wild-eyed creators.

The final portion of the book looks at how the internet and the societal and cultural attitudes it has engendered have empowered such contemporary discoverers and paradoxers. In an age when everyone can be a critic, videographer, visual artist, fan fictioneer, or musician without credentials, why not embrace kitchen and backyard physics as well? This democratization of the ivory tower disciplines, Wertheim believes, represents both a threat and a potential we have yet to fully plumb.

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.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.