Outsider Physicists vs. the Priesthood of Mainstream Science

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
Jan. 6 2012 1:15 PM

Other Theories of Physics

Amateurs around the world take on the priesthood of mainstream science.

Subatomic particles.
Can "outsider physicists" help explain subatomic particles and other complicated scientific matters better than mainstream scientists?

Photograph by James Thew/Hemera.

In October 1991, astrophysicists observed something incredible in the skies above Dugway Proving Ground, a former weapons-testing facility in a remote corner of Utah. It was a cosmic ray with an enormous amount of energy—equivalent to the kinetic energy of a baseball traveling at 62 mph, but compressed into a subatomic particle. It came to be known as the oh-my-god-particle, and though similar events have been recorded at least 15 times since, mainstream physicists remain baffled by them.

To Jim Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, Wash., ultra-high-energy cosmic rays pose no problem. They offer proof of a radical theory of the universe he has been developing for 50 years.

In Carter's theory, these rays are photons left over from the earliest stage of cosmic evolution. He calls them "apocalyptic photons" and believes that one of them was responsible for the Tunguska event in 1908, in which a mysterious something from outer space flattened more than 800 square miles of Siberian forest.

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Carter's ideas are not taken seriously by the physics mainstream. He does not have a Ph.D. and has never had any of his work published in a scientific journal. He has just a single semester of university education, which was enough to convince him that what was being taught in physics departments was an offense to common sense.

In response, Carter went off and developed his own ideas. Five decades on he has his very own theory of everything, an idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Since the 1970s he has articulated his ideas in a series of self-published books, including his magnum opus, The Other Theory of Physics.

For the past 18 years I have been collecting the works of what I have come to call "outsider physicists." I now have more than 100 such theories on my shelves. Most of them are single papers, but a number are fully fledged books, often filled with equations and technical diagrams (though I do have one that is couched as a series of poems and another that is written as a fairy tale). Carter's is by far the most elaborate work I have encountered.

The mainstream science world has a way of dealing with people like this—dismiss them as cranks and dump their letters in the trash. While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored.

Consider the sheer numbers. Outsider physicists have their own organization, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2,100 theorists, 5,800 papers, and more than 1,300 books worldwide. They have annual conferences, with this year's proceedings running to 735 pages. In the time I have been observing the organization, the NPA has grown from a tiny seed whose founder photocopied his newsletter onto pastel-colored paper to a thriving international association with video-streamed events.

The NPA's website tells us that the group is devoted "to broad-ranging, fully open-minded criticism, at the most fundamental levels, of the often irrational and unrealistic doctrines of modern physics and cosmology; and to the ultimate replacement of these doctrines by much sounder ideas".

Very little unites this disparate group of amateurs—there are as many theories as members—except for a common belief that "something is drastically wrong in contemporary physics and cosmology, and that a new spirit of open-mindedness is desperately needed." They are unanimous in the view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language—in other words, mathematics—that is incomprehensible to most human beings. They claim that the natural world speaks a language which all of us can, or should be able to, understand. Rather than having their dialogue with the world mediated by "experts,"= NPA members insist that they can commune with it directly and describe its patterns in accessible terms.

Regardless of the credibility of this claim, it is sociologically significant. In their militantly egalitarian opposition to what they see as a physics elite, NPA members mirror the stance of Martin Luther and other pioneers of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood, and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

And just as Luther didn't reject the basic tenets of Christianity, outsider theorists do not reject science: They believe that it provides the right tools to reveal the majesty of our world. But they insist that the wonders of science be available to everyone.

It is here that we can find common ground with them. Many of us who love science would probably agree that one of its functions is to enable us to feel "at home in the cosmos," as theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman of the University of Vermont in Burlington famously put it. Outsider physicists don't feel at home in a universe described by the tensor equations of general relativity or the gauge symmetries of string theory. They feel alienated by it.

While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Margaret Wertheim is a science writer based in Los Angelesand the author of Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything.

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