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Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything Hardcover – October 25, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0802715135 ISBN-10: 0802715133 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802715133
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802715135
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #683,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"Margaret Wertheim writes beautifully, passionately, and with great humanity about a most unusual mind. This book is ultimately about big things: What is science? What is the universe? And who says?"—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

“With a vivid storyteller’s glee, Margaret Wertheim spins us one of those wide looping yarns that starts out all in good antic fun, only to become more and more confoundingly profound.  Her sagas of outsider physicists open out onto some of the most intriguing of questions, not least of which are: Who and what gives anyone the right to decide on the legitimacy of anyone else’s passions, on what gets to be deemed ‘in bounds’ and what not?”—Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder

 “Margaret Wertheim's fascinating portrait of Jim Carter wonderfully captures both the pathos and the brilliance hidden in a venerable tradition of science: the quixotic amateur who thinks he might have figured out the answer to the mysteries of the universe.” —Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century

"Physics on the Fringe is a compelling, sympathetic study of the outsiders who challenge the gates of official science with impassioned theories of the universe, much the way outsider artists challenged the art establishment.”—Lisa Stone, curator, Roger Brown Study Collection, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
"Maverick science writer Wertheim challenges the right of the scientific establishment to lay claim to the position of gatekeepers of truth… Wertheim raises an important question with broader ramifications." – Kirkus

"[An] informative, often witty overview of ‘outsider physicists’…the crown jewel in her menagerie of eccentric visionaries is James Carter, a do-it-yourself mechanic whose theory of everything has been percolating for five decades….far from belittling Carter, Wertheim uses his inspiring example as a potent reminder that today’s cranks may be deemed tomorrow’s geniuses." – Booklist
 

"With insight, wit, and warmth, Wertheim offers a look into the hearts and minds of the "outsider" physicists… an entry point into a fascinating corner of pseudoscience." – Publishers Weekly

 

"[A] compassionate look at those on the fringe…Wertheim covers new ground in this treatment of how science is communicated and what it means for scientific ideas that aren’t part of the discussion…Both conversational and easy to read, this is an accessible guide to the world of the weird." – Library Journal

"Fascinating, bizarre, and provocative…[a] brilliant thesis…Any reader who found pleasure and excitement in The Men Who Stare at Goats or Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons will derive similar joy from this finely wrought, sympathetic, and stimulating survey of gonzo ingenuity in the service of science." – Barnes & Noble Review

"Delightful…However misguided, the characters in Physics on the Fringe are their own men, doing their own work, like Newton, Faraday, and other past heroes. In some ways, Wertheim’s book is a paean to small science." – The American Scholar

"A compelling study…Wertheim unfolds a fascinating chronicle of such ‘down the rabbit hole’ thinking, but far from taking the ironic high ground, the tone is respectful and sympathetic." – The Outsider

 

"Entertaining and philosophically provocative…Wertheim serves up her philosophical punchline toward the end of her book when she turns her attention to mainstream physics and cosmology. She [senses] that some popular suppositions—notably the notion that reality consists of extremely tiny strings wriggling in hyperspaces of a dozen or more dimensions, or that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes—verge on pseudoscience, because they are even less experimentally testable than Carter's circlon theory… On the other hand, Wertheim is gently, affectionately skeptical of the outsider physicists, too…She nonetheless suggests that, given how far mainstream physics has drifted from a grounding in empirical evidence, perhaps we should judge all physics theories according to their beauty, elegance, and craftsmanship. And just as the art world occasionally embraces outsiders who lack formal training, so perhaps physics—and physics writers—should look more favorably upon the imaginings of autodidacts like Carter." – Chronicle of Higher Education

"For the past 15 years, Margaret Wertheim has been collecting similar works by such hermit scientists, or what she calls "outsider physicists." With the patience of Job she has undertaken the task of carefully reading as many "theories of everything" as she could get her hands on. In "Physics on the Fringe," Ms. Wertheim takes us on a tour of "outsider" ideas and with an eye toward challenging our preconceptions of what science is, how it works and who it is for. As you'd expect, the book is entertaining—even laugh-out-loud funny in places—, but it's equally enlightening. In an elegant narrative Ms. Wertheim has taken on one of the knottiest conundrums in the philosophy of science, the demarcation problem—that is, how to find criteria to define the boundary between science and pseudoscience….let's not dismiss outsiders before giving them their day in court, as Ms. Wertheim has done in this splendid book." – The Wall Street Journal

"Wertheim, an accomplished science writer, has collected such [fringe] 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… [a] beautifully written book…Wertheim shows us just how muddy the waters are on the border between what is classed as "legitimate" and what as "fringe."" – American Scientist

"Wertheim shows that there always have been passionate amateurs storming the gates of mainstream science, and she considers the profound need these outsiders have to define the world on their own terms." – Baltimore Sun

About the Author

Margaret Wertheim is a science writer with degrees in physics and matchematics. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, and is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. In her pioneering work in new methods of science communication, she founded the nonprofit Institute For Figuring, through which she organized the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, a touring exhibition at the intersection of science and art.

Customer Reviews

Shortly thereafter I bought the Kindle version of the book.
Hans Strupat
One person would say one thing and another would say another, and people would pick one or the other based largely on which they thought sounded better.
Maury Markowitz
We get the point that otherwise sane and intelligent people can promote bad ideas, but Jim's ideas are never shown to have any particular use.
John E. Vidale

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Richard Benish on December 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who has more than dabbled in many of the obscure subjects covered, I found this book a fascinating consolidation. But I have reservations. The main human subject, James Carter, is certainly an industrious and imaginative fellow, but I think the appellation, "Leonardo of outsiders" exaggerates the value of his work. Carter's "theory" of microcosmic matter, which proposes, by implication, to replace Schroedinger's wave equation with a predictively barren scheme of "circlons," is unlikely to arouse much interest outside the art gallery.

The book's most valuable insight is the striking parallel drawn between the collective works of outsiders and what passes for serious physics by academic insiders. Wertheim characterizes the activities of the avant garde string and multiverse cosmology theorists as the more bizarre of the two--a correct assessment, in my view.

Finally, Physics on the Fringe--as with the latest edition of Carter's book, The Other Theory of Physics (OTP)--suffers from a serious omission. In earlier editions of Carter's work, he points out that his model of gravity can be tested with a simple experiment. Being familiar with the development of Carter's work, Wertheim mentions the experiment. But she does not describe it, either graphically or verbally. In the 2011 edition of OTP, Carter does not even mention the experiment. Why not?

Regardless of the predictive uselessness of Carter's Circlon theory, his gravity model makes a robust prediction by which it can be definitively put on the chopping block. The blade breaks or the theory dies. This is what science is supposed to be about: making predictions based on hypotheses and TESTING them. Both outsiders and the latest generation of insiders sadly neglect this fact.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By John E. Vidale on February 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a worker in earthquake prediction, a field with a bewildering variety of "outsider" researchers constantly lobbing in more or less wild and unfounded theories, it was with interest that I picked up this book after reading a favorable review in Science last year.

The first half of the book, which provides historical background on people with unorthodox theories and gives essentially biographical material on a current outsider, Jim Carter, was well written and engaging.

Then the shaky analogies started. Such as comparing Jim's circulons with similar modeling done a century ago by groundbreaking scientists. We get the point that otherwise sane and intelligent people can promote bad ideas, but Jim's ideas are never shown to have any particular use. The detailed descriptions of Jim's theories are hard to follow and pointless. Jim's previous endeavors are detailed, but the obvious conclusion that many were misbegotten is not made. He conceives of a complicated idea, then generally it doesn't work, for example finding a gold deposit by aeromag, or digging down to a surefire placer deposit. Or spending years making an apparatus to simulate smoke rings. Did he really think staring at colliding smoke rings would show the underlying physics of gravity, electricity, and nuclear forces?

Comparing Wolfram with Jim is not an even match - one was a master of computational science, and generated an invaluable toolbox for the scientific community of great power, even if he had some bad theories of everything. The other made flotation bags, not as impressive. Comparing string theorists with outsiders is another case in which one is much more meritorious than the other.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Anna Joy Springer on November 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In the newly developing interdisciplinary field of Imagination Studies, this book is a must-read. It's beautifully written and fun, but also very thoroughly researched. Such a strange, great book - just filled me with ideas!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The fringe physicists Wertheim explores are shut out of the rigid maths-dominated physics agenda. Right or wrong? Even after reading Wertheim I'd be loth to express an opinion either way. But Wertheim, who trained in maths and the sciences, can certainly able to make a case. She humanises the experimenters. Some are indubitably off this planet. But how can a layman make sense of string theory which posits seven (do I hear a bid for 11, and there at the back, 23) dimensions? They may be right. But on the other hand they may be so far "up themselves" (as we say in Australia) that the light on the hill is a glimmer of daylight through the contradictory murk of hypotheses. At least Wertheim (whom I used to listen to on radio here) tries to explain what other experts make unexplainable. I think the concept of an energy universe beginning as a point of infinite mass exploding into nothing space is beautiful. But what will be the state of knowledge in a century? Certainly not an old, white-bearded white man sitting on a cloud pointing his finger at us 6000 years ago and chanting "Let there be . . .", which was the accepted theory a few generations back.

John
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Hans Strupat on May 28, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was drawn to the book by the aesthetically pleasing illustrations of the circlon atom structure during the LA Book Fair. Shortly thereafter I bought the Kindle version of the book. Having been educated as an electrical engineer, and having been interested for decades in physics, math and astronomy, Wertheim speaks 'my language.' The book emphasizes the enormous required persistence expended by both insiders and outsiders to tell the world about un-orthodox innovations.

I find the "Physics on the Fringe" intellectually stimulating; maybe, by personalizing Jim Carter, the book even encourages the reader to dream up un-conventional interpretations and solutions herself, in fact, I believe, it gives the reader "creative permission."

If you are reading the Kindle version, make sure to check out the appendix with drawings and and photos early on. Maybe future Kindle editions will incorporate the "color plates" in the appropriate portion throughout the text. Aren't plates from an era of pre-21st century of applied physics anyway?
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