There’s a new very thought-provoking book out from Margaret Wertheim, entitled Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything. Much of the book is the beautifully told story of “outsider” physicist Jim Carter, who has spent much of his life developing an alternative fundamental physics theory based on objects he calls “circlons”.
I have to confess that, while respecting the impetus that leads people to develop such theories, I have essentially zero sympathy for this kind of thing as science. As Wertheim explains
In Jim’s theory of the universe, everything is mechanical; like INCOBO [an internal combustion boiler he designed], the world he imagines is made up of simple mechanically interlocking parts. As with his engine, none of the parts are complicated and you don’t need much mathematics to understand how it works…
One way to think about what Jim Carter is doing is that he insists on a universe he can comprehend. As with the old Chryslers and Cadillacs that grace his front yard, Jim demands a cosmos he can figure out for himself.
One way in which I’m very different than Jim Carter is that I’ve never been one for insisting on ideas that I can figure out for myself. I’m grateful for and fascinated by the fact that there’s a huge amount of knowledge about the universe out there discovered over centuries by a collaboration of a long list of brilliant people, and many places to try and learn about it. This kind of learning is a joy, and not being willing to engage with and try and appreciate the accumulated wisdom of the human race to me makes no sense. When I got to the point of learning about quantum theory, it became clear to me that this was something of great power and beauty, carrying the lesson that at a fundamental level the world is very different than the mechanical picture we derive from our human-scale intuitions. At the same time, fundamental physics and mathematics are deeply intertwined, with the deepest ideas in mathematics showing up when one tries to understand the deepest questions about physics.
The basic problem with efforts like Carter’s is that the tools and ideas he is using just aren’t powerful enough. There’s no way they can be used to understand the universe (and test one’s understanding by calculating from theory and comparing to experiment) with anything like the power of the Standard Model or general relativity. Anyone who wants to do better than the Standard Model or GR has to come up with equally powerful ideas. It seems unlikely that this can be done by any means other than understanding well the ideas behind these theories, as well as their weaknesses, as a starting point to look for something new.
Wertheim discusses a range of other failed and “outsider” ideas about physics. She sees an analog of Carter’s vision in the the 19th century work of prominent scientists like Tait and Thomson, who studied smoke rings as a phenomenon that might model physics at the atomic scale. More recently, Steven Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science featured claims that conventional fundamental physics could be replaced with ideas about cellular automata. Wolfram is a MacArthur winner, and Ph.D. in particle theory, so it’s not by credentials alone that one can identify “outsiders” barking up an unpromising tree.
Remarkably, Wertheim explains that her motivation for writing the book came from attending a 2003 conference on string cosmology at the Santa Barbara KITP. This was at the beginning of the “string theory anthropic multiverse” madness which has afflicted the field since that time. In 1998 she had attended with Carter an annual meeting of the NPA (National Philosophy Alliance), a group of “outsider” physicists, and she was shocked to find the KITP hosting something that seemed not obviously different:
That string cosmology conference I attended was by far the most surreal physics event I have been to, more bizarre than any NPA event for the very reason that this was not a fringe affair but a star-studded proceeding involving some of the most famous names in science…
After two days, I couldn’t decide if the atmosphere was more like a children’s birthday party or the Mad Hatter’s tea party – in either case, everyone was high…
… the attitude among the string cosmologists seemed to be that anything that wasn’t logically disallowed must be out there somewhere. Even things that weren’t allowed couldn’t be ruled out, because you never knew when the laws of nature might be bent or overruled. This wasn’t student fantasizing in some late night beer-fueled frenzy, it was the leaders of theoretical physics speaking at one of the most prestigious university campuses in the world.
Besides the difference in credentials, there is an important difference between most recent mainstream theoretical work, even when in multiverse madness mode, and that of the “outsiders” of the NPA. Mainstream theorists recognize that they need to be compatible with the SM and GR. What they are doing is working within a conjectural extension (call it “M-theory”) of the SM and GR, claiming to preserve the successes of those theories. In principle, working this way should provide a very tight constraint on what you can do. The problem though is that one doesn’t know exactly what “M-theory” is. All one has is a list of conjectured characteristics, and these seem to be weak enough to allow a vast array of “vacua”, of such complexity as to effectively remove much in the way of constraints on what you can observe at low energy. Since the conference Wertheim attended in 2003, there have been huge efforts made to extract some non-trivial implications out of this “landscape” scenario, with no success. In practice things have in many cases degenerated to the level of “outsider” physics: anything goes, and one ends up with a group of people making ambitious claims about their wonderful theory, with no conceivable way for such claims to be tested or backed up.
All in all, I think this is an important book, one which raises in an interesting way fundamental issues about how people think about and conduct research into fundamental theoretical physics. We’re at an unusual point in the history of the subject, one where the foundations of how this kind of science has traditionally been done are being questioned. Wertheim’s contribution to this questioning is worth paying attention to.