Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything

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.

For some other recent reviews, see John Horgan here, and Michael Shermer here.

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56 Responses to Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything

  1. Dear Peter

    Many thanks for the splendid and thoughtful piece about my book. Your own book, and Lee Smolin’s, were important touchstones in the development of my thinking about the far fringes of science. As someone trained in physics I have been astounded by the rise of string theory, which has seemed to me for a long time to be little more than magical speculation. There is of course a role for magical speculation in out lives, the question in my book is does it belong in science?

    You may be interested to hear that since the book was published I have received quite a few comments from outsider theorists who are distressed at my representation of themselves. They have defended their community as one that has shared concerns and methods – just like the insiders. Its rather strange that on the one had they are calling for a revolution, yet on the other hand they also crave some kind of continuity with the very thing they claim to be rejecting….

  2. Peter

    It occurs to me that your audience may be interested to know that I am currently putting together an exhibition of outsider physics theories. Some of these are graphically stunning – the show will be a visual version of my book. The exhibition will be on display at the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles. Opening date will be in early March 2012. More information about the show can be seen on the Exhibition Page of the website for my book:

    Let me know if you come to LA and I’d be delighted to show you around the exhibition and my collection of outsider theories.

    all best

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Thank Margaret,

    Probably won’t make it to LA next year, but if so, will definitely take you up on your offer.

    It’s interesting to hear about the “reaction” of the “outsiders” to your book. Sounds like you managed to get both “insiders” and “outsiders” distressed, a good sign…

  4. Peter

    Yes this book has proved to be a source of equal opportunity upset. On the other hand many people – especially nonscientists – have understood that the core of the book is the questions it raises. So many people are bamboozled and intimidated by contemporary theoretical physics, and not knowing where to turn for help. When I started working on the project I planned to write a much more academic book that addressed in depth the sociological issues raised by outsiders; but in the end I decided to, in a sense, stay true to the spirit of my subject and let my subjects speak for themselves. At one point I wanted to call the book “a scientific fairytale” – like many fairytales the story hinges around both a hero and a moral dilemma.

    For me the appeal of physics was always its magical beauty. In this sense I agree with your remarks that outsiders are missing out on something really wonderful. That is a failure of their education I believe – one of the sad facts of our time is that so few people can gain the kind of education needed to appreciate aesthetic brilliance of general relativity. I wrote a chapter (that I didn’t end up including) in which I proposed that Einstein is the Leonardo of physics and that Jim Carter could be seen as it Heironymous Bosch.

    I hope to be coming to NY next year for an event about the book. Perhaps we could meet up then. Who knows, the LHC might have found something we both could celebrate.

    all best margaretw

  5. Pingback: Fringe Physics « Raxa Collective

  6. harryb says:

    Peter, I also enjoyed your review, and when the book is available as an ebook on amazon, I’ll promise to buy it. A trawl through arXiv recently shows at least some continued skepticism re String Theory – eg Hedrich’s: String Theory – From Physics to Metaphysics – arXiv:physics/0604171

    Admittedly from 2006, and (to me) a confusing paper – never sure if pro / anti the String Theory position – but extensive use of Lee Smolin’s arguments.

    A number of recent papers also give the Multiverse/Anthropic Princple/String (M) Theory axis short shrift also. Although you sense a wariness on being tough on string theory, whilst hammering away at the other two (odd).

    I tend to agree with you re bias for building on the blocks of previous science – maverick ideas even on settled science surely still welcome, but most (all?) historical “mavericks” seemed to work productively against the common grain rather than bypassing it.

    What Margaret Wertheim’s book appears to offer (and I will read it fully) is that the deep efforts on String Theory are becoming more fantastical and magical the more it leaves behind the shackles of empiricism and measurement – hence are they any more worthy of detailed consideration than Circlons?

    That is a very bad fate for a leading and prominent scientific theory, and it continues to have worrying implications – eg snuffing out diversity of ideas, disengaging the wider populace. On top of this, the approach seems destined for a final theory of unfalsifiable metaphysics (multiverse / AP) coupled with unskeptical and highly defensive approaches to any challenge. All the hallmarks of cultism that Wertheim’s book seems to identify.

    A poor end for fundamental physics potentially. Where to now – back up the hierarchy to the quantum / classical cut and start again? Top-down v bottom-up?

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