Science on the Rampage

Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource
An engraving by William Blake from The Song of Los, 1795

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…

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