Sunday, October 20, 2013

Thinkers at the Fringe

There's an article, by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, about David Birnbaum, a jeweler to the stars turned metaphysician and has written a Big Book entitled Summa Metaphysica.
It is an exhausting read, partly thanks to its length – volume two alone has 90 appendices – but also because much of it is written in a kind of rapturous, mystical prose, liberally peppered with capitals. A typical sentence reads: "The cosmic trajectory is from the bottomless VOID to the limitless EXTRAORDINARY." Birnbaum's big idea is what he calls "the Quest for Potential theory", or Q4P, or occasionally Q4P∞. The sense that he is unveiling hidden, pan-historical connections sometimes gives his work the flavour of Dan Brown.
I've got my doubts. What caught my attention, though, is this:
The science writer Margaret Wertheim has made a specialism of studying people she calls "outsider scientists": obsessive amateurs, usually with little or no university education, who assert that mainstream science has taken a wrong turn, and devote themselves to constructing elaborate alternative theories of reality. The star of her 2011 book on the subject, Physics On The Fringe, is a trailer-park owner from Washington state named Jim Carter, who rejects quantum physics, arguing that the universe is actually composed of minuscule doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Whatever else may be said about this theory, Carter's painstaking, multicoloured circlon diagrams are gorgeous; Wertheim once curated an exhibition of them at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Wertheim is unashamedly sympathetic toward her cast of eccentrics, a fact that led some critics to misread her as arguing that their ideas ought to be taken seriously. What she really wants us to take seriously, though, is the motivation behind their efforts: their insistence that the deepest secrets of the universe, as she puts it, "ought to be understandable by an ordinary, thoughtful person, who's willing to do some contemplating". Science is supposed to explain the world to us, turning shimmering mysteries into intelligible truths. But, in practice, few of us will ever understand the cutting edge of a field such as physics, because it requires so much advanced mathematics; we must take it on trust. "What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?" Wertheim wonders. "On some level, isn't that just a very unhealthy situation for a society to be in?"
H/t Tyler Cowen.

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