Dyson is much more sympathetic than most physicists to “fringe physicists” like Jim Carter who is the main figure in Wertheim’s book. He compares Carter to William Thomson and Peter Tait, well-known 19th century scientific figures, while making clear that Carter’s “Circlon” theory is not worth taking seriously. He then goes on to discuss two cases of “fringe physics” that he had personal experience with:
In my career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.
About the later speculative work which he was exposed to as a student in Eddington’s class at Cambridge, Dyson writes:
Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man. For the small class of students, it was a privilege to come faithfully to his lectures and to share his pain. Two years later he was dead.
This sympathy for a great physicist who headed down a wrong path in his later years is easy to understand, but the case of Velikovsky is less so. Velikovsky was a well-known author of crackpot best-sellers starting in the 1950s (lots got explained by Venus and Mars moving out of their orbits and colliding with the Earth a few thousand years ago), and a neighbor of Dyson’s in Princeton. Here’s what he wrote as a proposed blurb for Velikovsky in 1977:
First, as a scientist, I disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.
He goes on to explain:
Why do I value so highly the memory of Eddington and Velikovsky, and why does Margaret Wertheim treasure the memory of William Thomson and Jim Carter? We honor them because science is only a small part of human capability. We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”
Dyson’s sympathy for mystics, even ones spouting nonsense, is of a piece with his views on religion and science (which helped win him the Templeton Prize for 2000). These views are hard to do justice to here, if interested to know more, his 2002 review in the NYRB of a book on theology by physicist John Polkinghorne is a good place to look.
The review goes on to address a different sort of “fringe physics”, the somewhat mainstream topic of “string cosmology”, which Wertheim compared to the work of Jim Carter.
Over most of the territory of physics, theorists and experimenters are engaged in a common enterprise, and theories are tested rigorously by experiment. The theorists listen to the voice of nature speaking through experimental tools. This was true for the great theorists of the early twentieth century, Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrödinger, whose revolutionary theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were tested by precise experiments and found to fit the facts of nature. The new mathematical abstractions fit the facts, while the old mechanical models did not.
String cosmology is different. String cosmology is a part of theoretical physics that has become detached from experiments. String cosmologists are free to imagine universes and multiverses, guided by intuition and aesthetic judgment alone. Their creations must be logically consistent and mathematically elegant, but they are otherwise unconstrained. That is why Wertheim found the official string cosmology conference disconcertingly similar to the unofficial Natural Philosophy conference. The insiders and the outsiders seem to be following the same rules. Both groups are telling stories of imagined worlds, and neither has an assured way of deciding who is right. If the title Physics on the Fringe fits the natural philosophers, the same title also fits the string cosmologists.
The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled. Hermann Weyl, who was one of the main architects of the relativity and quantum revolutions, said to me once, “I always try to combine the true with the beautiful, but when I have to choose one or the other, I usually choose the beautiful.” Following Weyl’s good example, our string cosmologists are making the same choice.
I strongly disagree with Dyson that “string cosmology” is beautiful, and suspect that he hasn’t bothered to look closely into it. Even the people most enthusiastic about the anthropic string theory landscape don’t generally characterize it as beautiful. Brian Greene’s characterization of string theory as “Elegant” concerns the idea of a highly predictive unified theory based on a Calabi-Yau, but I don’t think he has tried to characterize the Multiverse in this way. There’s lots to say about the problem of “beauty” and string theory, at one point I wrote a whole book chapter about it, so won’t say more here.
The Hermann Weyl quote is very famous, and I had always assumed that it was something that Weyl wrote somewhere. It turns out that the source is not Weyl, but Dyson himself, who wrote after Weyl’s death in the March 10, 1956 issue of Nature:
Characteristic of Weyl was an aesthetic sense which dominated his thinking on all subjects. He once said to me, half joking, ‘My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful’. This remark sums up his personality perfectly. It shows his profound faith in an ultimate harmony of Nature, in which the laws should inevitably express themselves in a mathematically beautiful form. It shows also his recognition of human frailty, and his humor, which always stopped him short of being pompous.
The “half-joking” and “his humor” part of this quote just about always gets left off, making Weyl sound, well, kind of pompous.
The Institute for Advanced Study now has some new web-pages devoted to Weyl and his work, the main one is here.