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: