Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything (Hardcover)

Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything

By Margaret Wertheim

Walker & Company, 9780802715135, 323pp.

Publication Date: November 1, 2011



For the past fifteen years, acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of "outsider physicists," many without formal training and all convinced that they have found true alternative theories of the universe. Jim Carter, the Einstein of outsiders, has developed his own complete theory of matter and energy and gravity that he demonstrates with experiments in his backyard, -with garbage cans and a disco fog machine he makes smoke rings to test his ideas about atoms. Captivated by the imaginative power of his theories and his resolutely DIY attitude, Wertheim has been following Carter's progress for the past decade.

Centuries ago, natural philosophers puzzled out the laws of nature using the tools of observation and experimentation. Today, theoretical physics has become mathematically inscrutable, accessible only to an elite few. In rejecting this abstraction, outsider theorists insist that nature speaks a language we can all understand. Through a profoundly human profile of Jim Carter, Wertheim's exploration of the bizarre world of fringe physics challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.

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.

Praise For Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything

"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