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Book Review: Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim

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I was drawn to Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything because of its rather extraordinary title. There’s just a hint of magic there, grounded in what seems like a very sophisticated form of science. What I found, however, was a very humanistic and sociological book, rooted in the universal need that we all have to make sense of our lives.

The book ostensibly follows the work, in some detail, of “outsider physicist” Jim Carter, who has come up with a rather odd, but extensive, theory of everything. Carter’s theory is rooted in his observations and pioneering desire to DIY. Author Margaret Wertheim puts Jim’s work into a broad historical context, seamlessly presenting the impetus for this kind of work, and indeed the sheer magnitude of the effort that underpins it.

Carter’s work is presented in full-colour plates, and is indeed artistically, if not intellectually, appealing. But it’s the larger implications of what Carter and other outsider “physicists” are doing that Wertheim teases out with both compassion and great intelligence in Physics on the Fringe and that makes it such a fascinating book.

Wertheim’s considerable experience as a science writer is obvious as as she incorporates the history of physics and its development, including work from Bacon, Mendeleev, Rutherford, Newton, Einstein, Tait, Thomson, Hemholtz, Faraday, Maxwell, Feynman, and many others, without ever becoming overly technical or dry, or losing the thread of her thesis. The book remains lighthearted and accessible to a non-specialist reader and as I read I found myself following up on a number of interesting facts, including Maxwell’s zoetrope at the Cavindish Laboratory museum in Cambridge and Feynman’s lecture on the motion of planets around the sun.

What comes out of the reading above all, however, is that there is a legitimate imaginative response to life that may be classed as science but which is more akin to art. In other words, there is a certain kind of legitimacy in lay-physics, even as academic physics has become increasingly mathematical, specialised, and above all, expensive:

“I have come to think of this as the “cosmological problem.” Traditionally, the purpose of cosmology was to embed a people in a world—what happens to a society when its official cosmology becomes one that 99 percent of its population does not understand and very likely cannot ever hope to comprehend?” (p. 254)

In the unravelling of what draws people to cosmology, Wertheim shows us the poetic hunger for meaning that drives people like Carter to devote their lives to making a holistic theory. Wertheim makes no bones about the fact that much of this work, even Carter’s, is poor science. This is clearly enunciated and explained; however, the case is also made that despite the fact that this is bad science, it is still valuable and in some (though not all) cases, aesthetically beautiful and meaningful.

As with the work that Wertheim has done through her Institute for Figuring, Physics on the Fringe affirms that there is room in this world for knowledge seekers of all kinds, along the broadest of spectrums. Wisdom can evolve and present itself in many ways – through empirical, mathematically sound, proven processes, and through hands-on, aesthetically rich, intuitive ones. Wertheim’s ability to mediate and bridge these often disparate perspectives is part of what makes this book such a powerful and enjoyable read.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.