DIY physics: a conversation with Margaret Wertheim

This Q & A was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Margaret Wertheim studied physics and mathematics before turning to science writing, is the author of three books, and has written articles for COSMOSThe New York Times and The Guardian.

We talked about her latest book, Physics on the Fringe, and her hugely successful science engagement project, Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. 

Rivqa Rafael: In communicating science, we often try hard to ignore outsider scientists. What was your motivation for writing this book?

Margaret Wertheim: I started encountering people with alternative theories of physics about 20 years ago. At first I thought – like most physicists – that these were quirky cranks. But I kept the theories that were sent to me because I thought it was interesting that people were doing this. And the more of them I got, the more it started to weigh on my consciousness – that in an age of so much good science communication, why was it that people felt the need to try and reinvent physics from the ground up?

Did you feel like you’d answered the question, or does it remain open to interpretation?

One thing that these people have in common that they claim that nature speaks a language that an ordinary, thoughtful, intelligent person ought to be able to understand. That’s an interesting claim. Is it true? I suspect it’s probably not. But the other consequence is we have a theory of reality that very few people can really understand, and I think in some sense that’s sociologically unstable. I don’t think there’s an easy resolution to this.

Do outsiders contribute to science, or tell us something about human nature?

In my book, I talk about outsider physicists as being the equivalent of outsider art. These are people who are self-taught artists; they’re doing art on their own terms for their own reasons. But there’s a difference between outsider art and outsider science, and that is that outsider artists don’t care if they’re noticed by the mainstream. The outsider physicist is in a different position because he – and I say he because 99% of them are men – does care. They want to be accepted by the physics mainstream, and that’s where the conflict arises. And that’s why this is an inherently tragic activity because they’re never going to be accepted by the mainstream.

I was also interested in what it says about the perception of science in our society. I’m not interested in the specific theories that these people produce; I’m interested in what it says about society’s thoughts and feelings about science.

The book made me ponder who owns science…

I think one of the most fascinating things about this whole subject is that one of the hallmarks of the post-Enlightenment era is that we’ve opened up the means of production. In the 16th century almost no one could read. Now in the age of the Internet and self-publishing enterprises, anyone can write a book and have it distributed worldwide through Internet publishing services. So in 400 years we’ve made this extraordinary transition from books being these extremely rare things that a very small sector of society would even ever see, let alone produce. Now, there are millions of books a year published in English and we applaud that.

But it’s funny – some people get upset at the mere thought of people doing DIY physics. But why? That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. We don’t have that reaction picking up pens and writing books or picking up a guitar and making their own music. Why do we have that reaction to theoretical physics?

Do you think that’s a challenge for science communicators to tackle?

I think as science communicators we do have a mission to really try to communicate science accessibly, and when it comes to theoretical physics it’s not easy to do. But I think there’s something more that we’re called upon to do, which is to acknowledge where our audience is. And there are quite a lot of people out there who are intimidated by science. Rather than just saying, ‘if you work hard enough you can understand this’, I think we need to openly acknowledge that there is this fear and apprehension out there. It’s not just about finding accessible ways to describe; we also need to address the psychological issues of how and why people are intimidated or frightened? We need to find new ways of overcoming people’s fears and overcoming the perception that science is for a fairly elite audience.

Has moving to the ‘fringe’ marked a departure in your writing?

Yes, it’s a very big departure for any science writer to spend their times writing about fringe theorising, because most science communication is about looking at the theories that are accepted, or hopefully will be soon. But I do see this book having something in common with my other books – how society decides which theories of reality to pay attention to. My first book was about the history of the relationship between physics and religion. Really at the heart of that book is the question of authority. Which authorities get to be taken seriously as the people who have the job of describing reality to us? First it was theologians, and then it became scientists. That’s an interesting shift in our society. This book is also about whose theories of reality, and which versions of those theories, we pay attention to.

What do you plan to do next?

The next book that I will write will probably be about my Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project. Tens of thousands of women all over the world have come to our workshops at these crocheted reefs projects and we talk about how global warming and ocean acidification are devastating to coral reefs and marine environments. And we talk about geometry, because coral organisms with those frilly crenulated structures are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry. It’s been a very, very powerful way to engage women with science.

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