Physicists on the outside looking in

Physicists on the outside looking in

PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything. By Margaret Wertheim. Walker & Company. 323pp. $35. Reviewer: FRANK O'SHEA

A Google search for ''alternative physics'' gives 26.3 million results. If you attach the word ''alternative'' to medicine or psychology, you will get mainly mainstream forms of these disciplines; even ''alternative biology'' gets you into areas such as artificial intelligence or non-carbon-based life forms, respectable areas of study in their own right.

Physics and chemistry, however, are more dogmatic and allow no substitute for Newton's Laws or the Bohr atom or relativity. Those who propose alternative explanations are treated as outsiders, at best amusing amateurs, at worst annoying cranks. Expatriate Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim says that she has shelves of books, papers and articles sent to her by people she calls ''outsiders'', those whose theories on matter and the universe are ignored by the academy.

In a regrettable misuse of language, disciplines such as psychology, politics, economics, even sport, have captured the word ''science'' in an attempt to confer some respectability on their areas of study. You can argue about psychoanalysis or climate change or even evolution, but you can find political or religious interests that will put what appear to be plausible alternative explanations of observed facts. Because in these areas, there is no final authority. Physics is different; we know that we are right because established theories are supported by experiment and have the imprimatur of their queen: mathematics.

It used to be thought that our universe was a huge machine that obeyed mechanical, deterministic laws. But in the middle of the 19th century, Michael Faraday, in an attempt to overcome his poor background in mathematics, developed the idea of a field; he and others used this to explain electricity and magnetism and light. Then Maxwell put fields on a solid mathematical base, and his equations led people to radio, telephony, electric light and the motor car. At the turn of the century, Einstein spoke of a gravitational field, and then we began hearing about quantum fields; now there are no particles at all, just ripples in a quantum field that pervade everything.

Suddenly, physics seems to be talking with the kind of airy imprecision at which we laughed when he heard it used in art and literature. It is against that background that some people are trying to get back to the exactness of a pre-Faraday mechanised universe. This book concentrates on one such person, an American, Jim Carter; unfortunately, his theories are no easier to understand than the traditional ones and, in fact, are treated only cursorily.


Carter is an outsider. Because he is a university drop-out, he is dismissed by mainstream physics, his work treated with disdain. Mind you, in the United States, of all places, the lack of completed tertiary study should not be regarded as failure: think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Carter is a minor version of those three - he invented a flotation device and supplies it throughout the US from his own small factory - the main difference being that he refuses to allow commercial stresses to take him away from his physics.

Although the book spends much time on Carter, whom the author has met on a number of occasions, he and his theories are not the most interesting part of what she writes. Outsiders have formed a society of their own, the Natural Philosophy Alliance (NPA), a clever nod to what physics was called up to the mid-19th century.

Anyone with an alternative theory can join the NPA and present a paper at one of their conferences. Most members are men, earnest and extremely serious, sometimes blinkered; the one common theme seems to be their annoyance at the way that abstruse mathematics has taken over physics. ''Just as numerological coincidences enchanted astronomers of the sixteenth century, theoretical physicists today are being blinded by the 'pseudosuccesses' of their mathematical tools,'' they write in their web page. Ouch!

Wertheim attended an NPA conference in 2010 at which 121 papers were presented, using PowerPoint or other software, video and animations. The proceedings were professionally bound and presented; there were bookstalls and trade stands and a public open day; there were discussions and questions, and even though each speaker was sure that his understanding of the world was the correct one, there was respectful civility.

She contrasts this with a conference on ''string cosmology'' that she attended a few years earlier. The civility and respect were still there, though even Stephen Hawking was not allowed to talk beyond his allotted time. Here was the cream of insider physics, speaking about multi-dimensional entities called ''strings''; there was talk of ''branes'' and ''multiverses'' and ''Landscapes'', a phantasmagoria in which universes came in and out of existence like medieval angels jostling on the head of a pin. Wertheim spoke with the organiser of the event and praised a particular speaker. He agreed, adding, ''Of course, there's not a shred of evidence for anything the fellow said.''

This is the quandary of modern physics. We are happy to accept the Big Bang, which started a clock that did not previously exist, but we mock the idea of an afterlife. The cleverest physicists in the world are working on a theory of matter that has no experimental basis; they have managed to invent a collection of universes that fit their mathematics but cannot find any evidence that they are real.

Against that background Wertheim has understandable sympathy for outsider physicists and has written a fascinating book that deserves wide attention.

Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher.