Physics on the Fringe

Michael D. Gordin in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 27 17.29Many people enjoy doing physics, and the vast majority of them work as professional scientists. Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe, however, is about the minority, those who devote a significant portion of their lives to investigating the structure of the universe at their kitchen tables while their families sleep. These individuals (those she discusses are, with one exception, all men) did not train as scientists and then fail to find employment in their chosen field. And they are not amateurs who study physics textbooks and read scholarly journals. They are at the fringe, a place most of us ignore completely.

That is because the fringe is, well, fringy. Among Wertheim’s protagonists are those who deny quantum mechanics, postulate new structures for atoms, revive the ether or reject special relativity, and just about all of them despise general relativity. They self-publish their theories—sometimes they just photocopy handwritten manuscripts—and circulate them among scientists worldwide, who usually end up tossing them in the wastebasket. Wertheim, an accomplished science writer, has collected such texts for years now and sympathetically narrates many of them for us. Such ephemera are very hard to come by, given their frequent encounters with the trash heap, and her archival efforts are to be lauded (as is the renewed attention she brings to mathematician Augustus De Morgan’s delightful 1872 book, A Budget of Paradoxes, which catalogs the rejectamenta of the science of his day). She wants us to take these “outsider physicists” seriously, not as a kooky cultural phenomenon, but as people actually doing science in a way that demands as much attention from mainstream science as folk art now claims from the elite art community.

More here.