Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
by Margaret Wertheim
Walker, 323 pp., $27.00
Physics on the Fringe describes work done by amateurs, people rejected by the academic establishment and rejecting orthodox academic beliefs. They are often self-taught and ignorant of higher mathematics. Mathematics is the language spoken by the professionals. The amateurs offer an alternative set of visions. Their imagined worlds are concrete rather than abstract, physical rather than mathematical. Many of them belong to the Natural Philosophy Alliance, an informal organization known to its friends as the NPA.
Margaret Wertheim’s book discusses her encounters with the natural philosophers. She is interested in them as characters in a human tragedy, with the seriousness and dignity that tragedy imposes. Her leading character is Jim Carter, and her main theme is the story of his life and work. Unlike most of the philosophical dreamers, Carter is a capable engineer and does real experiments to test his ideas. He runs a successful business that gives him leisure to pursue his dreams. He is a man of many talents, with one fatal flaw.
Carter’s flaw is his unshakable belief in a theory of the universe based on endless hierarchies of circlons. Circlons are mechanical objects of circular shape. The history of the universe is a story of successive generations of circlons arising by processes of reproduction and fission. He verified the behavior of circlons by doing experiments with smoke rings at his home. A smoke ring is a visible manifestation of a circlon. He built an experimental apparatus using garbage cans and rubber sheeting to make long-lived smoke rings under controlled conditions. The fact that smoke rings can interact with one another and maintain a stable existence proves that circlons can do the same. Just as the standard theory of nuclear physics is verified by accelerator experiments, he claims that his theory is verified by his garbage can experiments at a million times lower cost. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, he tells his story over and over to listeners who will not believe it.
The most dramatic period of Carter’s life, Wertheim tells us, was the decade of the 1970s, when he made a living as a diver collecting abalone from the sea bottom around Catalina Island. His first vision of a circlon was a perfect ring of air bubbles that sometimes rose from the exhaust valve of his underwater breathing apparatus when he exhaled. In those days, abalone were abundant and the demand for them insatiable. He could make enough money in a day of diving to allow him to stay at home for a week and work out the theory of circlons.
The practical limit to his income was the difficulty of transporting large quantities of abalone from the sea bottom to land. He solved this problem by inventing a device called a lift bag, which is a large bag with one compartment for freight and another compartment inflated with air. A small tank of compressed air released into the bag can lift hundreds of times its own weight. The lifting capacity of the bag is the weight of water displaced by the air, and the water weighs a thousand times as much as the air. With the help of his wife, he designed a lift bag that was elegant and user-friendly, using brightly colored materials to improve its underwater visibility. He was soon receiving orders for lift bags from people engaged in underwater operations of all kinds, from raising sunken ships to drilling for oil. The Carter Lift Bag Company was bringing him a larger income than he had ever earned from abalone.
Carter was unaware, until Wertheim told him the news, that his smoke ring experiments had been done with similar apparatus and for a similar purpose 130 years earlier. William Thomson and Peter Tait, a famous physicist and a famous mathematician, had invented a theory of matter similar to Carter’s theory of circlons. They imagined every atom to be a vortex in a hypothetical fluid known as ether that was supposed to pervade space and time. They imagined the vortices to be knotted in various ways that explained the chemical differences between atoms of various elements. Vortices in a perfect fluid, either knotted or unknotted, would be permanent and indestructible.
Like Carter, Thomson and Tait used smoke rings as visible images of their imagined atoms. Like Carter, they failed to find any convincing evidence of a connection between image and atom. Unlike Carter, they were professional scientists, highly respected leaders of the international scientific community. Thomson was later ennobled by Queen Victoria and became Lord Kelvin, his name immortalized in the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature. Tait created a mathematical theory of knots, which grew in the twentieth century into a new branch of mathematics known as topology. Thomson and Tait were honored and respected, even as their theory of vortex atoms fell into oblivion. Wertheim asks: Why should Jim Carter be treated differently?
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.
Eddington was a great astronomer, one of the last of the giants who were equally gifted as observers and as theorists. His great moment as an observer came in 1919 when he led the British expedition to the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa to measure the deflection of starlight passing close to the sun during a total eclipse. The purpose of the measurement was to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. The measurement showed clearly that Einstein was right and Newton wrong. Einstein and Eddington both became immediately famous. One year later, Eddington published a book, Space, Time and Gravitation, that explained Einstein’s ideas to English-speaking readers. It begins with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model heaven
And calculate the stars: how they will wield
The mighty frame: how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances.
Milton had visited Galileo at his home in Florence when Galileo was under house arrest. Milton wrote poetry in Italian as well as English. He spoke Galileo’s language, and used Galileo as an example in his campaign for freedom of the press in England. Milton had witnessed with Galileo the birth struggle of classical physics, as Eddington witnessed with Einstein the birth struggle of relativity three hundred years later. Eddington’s book puts relativity into its proper setting as an episode in the history of Western thought. The book is marvelously clear and readable, and is probably responsible for the fact that Einstein was better understood and more admired in Britain and America than in Germany.
As a student at Cambridge University I listened to Eddington’s lectures on General Relativity. They were as brilliant as his books. He divided his exposition into two parts, and warned the students scrupulously when he switched from one part to the other. The first part was the orthodox mathematical theory invented by Einstein and verified by Eddington’s observations. The second part was a strange concoction that he called “Fundamental Theory,” attempting to explain all the mysteries of particle physics and cosmology with a new set of ideas. “Fundamental Theory” was a mixture of mathematical and verbal arguments. The consequences of the theory were guessed rather than calculated. The theory had no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.
Eddington said plainly, whenever he burst into his fundamental theory with a wild rampage of speculations, “This is not generally accepted and you don’t have to believe it.” I was unable to decide who were more to be pitied, the bewildered students who were worried about passing the next exam or the elderly speaker who knew that he was a voice crying in the wilderness. 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.
After I came to America, I became a friend of Immanuel Velikovsky, who was my neighbor in Princeton. Velikovsky was a Russian Jew, with an intense interest in Jewish legends and ancient history. He was born into a scholarly family in 1895 and obtained a medical degree at Moscow University in 1921. During the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution he wrote a long Russian poem with the title “Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pirez on the Sant’Angelo Bridge.” It was published in Paris in 1935. Diego Pirez was a sixteenth-century Portuguese Jewish mystic who came to Rome and sat on the bridge near the Vatican, surrounded by beggars and thieves to whom he told his apocalyptic visions. He was condemned to death by the Inquisition, pardoned by the pope, and later burned as a heretic by the emperor Charles V.
Velikovsky escaped from Russia and settled in Palestine with his wife and daughters. He described to me the joys of practicing medicine on the slopes of Mount Carmel above Haifa, where he rode on a donkey to visit his patients in their homes. He founded and edited a journal, Scripta Universitatis atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum, which was the official journal of the Hebrew University before the university was established. His work for the Scripta was important for the founding of the Hebrew University. But he had no wish to join the university himself. To fulfill his dreams he needed complete independence. In 1939, after sixteen years in Palestine, he moved to America, where he had no license to practice medicine. To survive in America, he needed to translate his dreams into books.
Eleven years later, Macmillan published Worlds in Collision, and it became a best seller. Like Diego Pirez, Velikovsky told his dreams to the public in language they could understand. His dreams were mythological stories of catastrophic events, gleaned from many cultures, especially from ancient Egypt and Israel. These catastrophes were interwoven with a weird history of planetary collisions. The planets Venus and Mars were supposed to have moved out of their regular orbits and collided with the Earth a few thousand years ago. Electromagnetic forces were invoked to counteract the normal effects of gravity. The human and cosmic events were tied together in a flowing narrative. Velikovsky wrote like an Old Testament prophet, calling down fire and brimstone from heaven, in a style familiar to Americans raised on the King James Bible. More best sellers followed: Ages in Chaos in 1952, Earth in Upheaval in 1955, Oedipus and Akhnaton in 1960. Velikovsky became famous as a writer and as a public speaker.
In 1977 Velikovsky asked me to write a blurb advertising his new book, Peoples of the Sea. I wrote a statement addressed to him personally:
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.
I added the emphatic instruction, “This statement to be printed in its entirety or not at all.” A quick response came from Velikovsky. He said, “How would you like it if I said you were the reincarnation of Jules Verne?” He wanted to be honored as a scientist, not as a poet. My statement was not printed, and Peoples of the Sea became a best seller without my help. We remained friends, and in that same year he gave me a copy of his Diego Pirez poem, which I treasure as the truest expression of his spirit. I hope it will one day be adequately translated into English.
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.”
Margaret Wertheim ends her book with a description of two conferences that she attended. The first was in 2003 at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at Santa Barbara. The second was in 2010 at California State University in Long Beach. Both conferences were supposed to be about physics. The subject of the Santa Barbara conference was “string cosmology.” It was a gathering of the leading professional experts in the most fashionable part of theoretical physics, with David Gross, who won a Nobel Prize in 2004, presiding. Each expert in turn described a personal vision of the cosmos, delineating either a single universe or a multiplicity of universes. The various visions were incompatible with one another, and no observational evidence could prove any of them right or wrong.
The Long Beach conference was organized by the Natural Philosophy Alliance, the amateurs on the fringe. Their meeting resembled a professional conference, with PowerPoint presentations followed by vigorous question-and-answer sessions. Jim Carter was there, and presented his vision of the universe among 120 others. Wertheim was probably the only person who attended both conferences. She is one of very few people who are at home in both worlds. She is a professional science writer with a degree in physics, and she has made friends with many insiders as well as outsiders. She asks at the end the central question raised by her book: Why should we pay more attention to one set of self-proclaimed experts than to the other?
So far as science in general is concerned, the answer to Wertheim’s question is clear. There is good reason to pay more attention to scientific experts than to amateurs, so long as science is based on experiments. Only trained experts can do experiments with the care and precision that experiments demand. Expert experimenters are not infallible, but they are less fallible than amateurs. Experiments give orthodox beliefs a solid basis. An experimental basis exists for the established disciplines of physics and chemistry and biology. However, some parts of physics are less secure than others, because the experts in physics are divided into experimenters and theorists.
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.