Out-there physics

physics-on-the-fringePhysics on the Fringe: Smoke rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
Margaret Wertheim, Walker, 2011
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

In her latest book, Margaret Wertheim gives air time to a group that’s usually studiously ignored – outsider physicists. These days commonly referred to as cranks, these men (and, rarely, women) are determined to prove mainstream physics wrong and convince the world of their unique theory of everything – if only we would listen.

Wertheim’s writing is engaging and informative as she runs through the stories of outsider physicists, both recent and historical. Her focus is Jim Carter, a former abalone diver and now trailer park owner with minimal university training who has spent 50 years developing his own model of reality. Carter’s unusual life history and engagement with experimental, as well as theoretical, science make for entertaining reading.

But these stories aren’t merely to amuse. Wertheim uses them as a prism through which to examine some uncomfortable questions. Particularly in a field that has become staggeringly complex and mystifying, who has the right to engage with science, and how? And who, indeed, has the right to answer these questions? The subjects of Wertheim’s book may be well outside the hegemony, but they raise questions worth pondering, and in the process they offer some fascinating insights into human curiosity and imagination.

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