The bat­tle of out­sider sci­en­tists to gain main­stream acceptance

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

‘Imag­i­na­tion is more im­por­tant than knowledge” — so goes Al­bert Ein­stein’s oft-quoted re­mark. Less well known is how the great physi­cist’s ob­ser­va­tion con­tin­ues: “Knowledge is lim­ited, imag­i­na­tion en­cir­cles the world.” Some species of world-en­cir­cling lies at the heart of Lawrence Weschler’s new book, “Waves Pass­ing in the Night,” a de­light­fully off­beat nar­ra­tive about a man with no science train­ing who has de­vel­oped a the­ory that he be­lieves re­veals lapses in our un­der­stand­ing of grav­ity and sug­gests ex­ten­sions to Ein­stein’s gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity.

What makes Weschler’s hero in­trigu­ing, even more than his claim, is his pedi­gree, for the man in ques­tion, Wal­ter Murch, is a leg­endary Hol­ly­wood film-and-sound edi­tor, nom­i­nee for nine Academy Awards and win­ner of three. Movie afi­ciona­dos re­vere him for his work on “Apoca­lypse Now” and “The God­fa­ther” se­ries, and his role in help­ing to cre­ate Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s master­piece “The Con­ver­sa­tion.” Over two decades, when he hasn’t been edit­ing films like “The English Pa­tient” and “Cold Moun­tain,” Murch has been de­vel­op­ing a the­ory about how plan­ets be­come ar­ranged around stars and moons around plan­ets. His labors have led him to con­clu­sions that, in his mind, con­sti­tute a po­ten­tial rev­o­lu­tion in cos­mol­ogy.

Murch’s the­ory is an elab­o­ra­tion of an idea dat­ing to the 18th cen­tury, when astronomers Jo­hann Di­etz (af­ter­ward known as Ti­tius) and Jo­hann Bode no­ticed that the dis­tances of the plan­ets from the sun seemed to fol­low a sim­ple for­mula. Dur­ing the past cen­tury, most pro­fes­sional cos­mol­o­gists have come to see “Ti­tiusBode” as a quaint ir­rel­e­vancy, yet ev­ery gen­er­a­tion or so it is re­vived by peo­ple seek­ing to jus­tify it with fur­ther the­o­ret­i­cal ex­ten­sions. For Murch, this in­volves a mys­te­ri­ous grav­i­ta­tional stand­ing wave su­per­im­posed on the so­lar sys­tem.

Weschler is a cham­pion of ec­cen­tric ge­niuses, much beloved for his books “Mr. Wil­son’s Cab­i­net of Won­ders,” about Mu­seum of Juras­sic Tech­nol­ogy founder David Wil­son, and “Boggs: A Com­edy of Val­ues,” about money artist J.S.G. Boggs. In “Waves Pass­ing in the Night,” he raises the ques­tions: Whose the­o­ries about physics get taken se­ri­ously? And what in­deed counts as a le­git­i­mate the­ory?

Many physi­cists are fa­mil­iar with th­ese quan­dries, for any the­o­rist of stature re­ceives let­ters from out­siders ea­ger to share their in­no­va­tions. Such pack­ages typ­i­cally have a swift tra­jec­tory, straight from the mail room into the bin.

For the past 30 years, I’ve been col­lect­ing th­ese ideas and have on my shelves about 300 al­ter­na­tive the­o­ries of the uni­verse, each of which claims to rev­o­lu­tion­ize our un­der­stand­ing of the world. The In­ter­net now is teem­ing with would-be Cor­per­ni­cuses and New­tons prof­fer­ing rad­i­cal ideas about the cos­mos, par­ti­cle physics, mat­ter, en­ergy, space and time. In my book “Physics on the Fringe,” I em­barked on a so­ci­o­log­i­cal study of th­ese “out­sider sci­en­tists,” a sub­cul­ture on the mar­gins of aca­demic physics that stands as a parallel to the “out­sider artists” who pop­u­late the pe­riph­eries of the in­sti­tu­tional art world.

Like Weschler, whose book contains a dis­cus­sion with me, I have been ex­er­cised by the is­sue of sci­en­tific au­thor­ity: Who gets a seat at this ta­ble? A sur­pris­ing ar­ray of can­di­dates can be found. Among the the­o­riz­ers I’ve met are car mechanics, ar­chi­tects, com­puter pro­gram­mers, doc­tors and a judge. Prob­a­bly the largest con­tin­gent are engi­neers, some ex­tremely well cre­den­tialed, and a sub­stan­tial group are pro­fes­sional physi­cists whose ar­eas of ex­per­tise are in the ap­plied side of science, say elec­tron­ics or op­tics. Very lit­tle unites them ex­cept for a feel­ing that main­stream the­ory has gone badly off track and fresh ideas are needed to cut through the mess.

Out­sider physi­cists have their own or­ga­ni­za­tion, the John Chap­pell Nat­u­ral Phi­los­o­phy So­ci­ety, which holds an­nual con­fer­ences and pub­lishes a yearly Pro­ceed­ings, which is now ac­cept­ing ab­stracts for its 2017 vol­ume. There are weekly we­b­casts, a lav­ish web­site and an enor­mous database listing thou­sands of “dis­si­dent” ideas.

A so­ci­ety of out­siders is prima fa­cie a prob­lem­atic con­struct — an oxy­moron per­haps — and one of the more sur­real ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had is be­ing in a room with 30 men, each of whom is of­fer­ing a new the­ory of re­al­ity.

“Waves Pass­ing in the Night” doesn’t ref­er­ence the Nat­u­ral Phi­los­o­phy So­ci­ety, and I sus­pect that if Murch knew of its ex­is­tence he’d shun it. As a world leader in his field, Murch is an un­usu­ally ac­com­plished case: He trans­lates po­etry from Ital­ian, is vastly knowl­edge­able about mu­sic and princely in his per­son. He’s been the sub­ject of a book by Michael On­daatje. It all adds up to an im­pres­sive pack­age, yet he, too, has failed to elicit in­ter­est from the physics main­stream, which as point­edly shunned him. Weschler re­counts in be­mused, at times poignant de­tail his tribu­la­tions try­ing to get aca­demic physi­cists to re­spond to Murch.

As a point of ref­er­ence, out­sider art stands as an in­ter­est­ing case study. A hun­dred years ago, when Jean Dubuf­fet first cham­pi­oned what he termed “art brut” — paint­ings and sculp­tures by un­trained am­a­teurs, which has since been called “folk art,” “ver­nac­u­lar art” and “naive art” — many in the art academy dis­missed the work. Yet to­day, there are gal­leries, jour­nals, schol­arly cen­ters and aca­demic cour­ses de­voted to out­sider art, while some of its prac­ti­tion­ers have been in­cor­po­rated into canon, Martin Ramirez and Adolf Wolfli most fa­mously.

Might out­sider science un­dergo a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion? Is it pos­si­ble that any am­a­teur physi­cist to­day may in the fu­ture be ac­cepted as a le­git­i­mate con­trib­u­tor and taught at univer­si­ties? The trou­ble is that for all the rightly noted res­o­nances be­tween art and science, there is an es­sen­tial dif­fer­ence. What gets ap­pre­ci­ated as art is nec­es­sar­ily sub­jec­tive — fash­ions change, aes­thetic ide­olo­gies shift, cul­tural the­o­ries and so­cial in­ter­ests morph. Out­sider art is hip now. The­o­ries of physics, how­ever, have to make pre­dic­tions that can be em­pir­i­cally ver­i­fied to many dec­i­mal places, re­gard­less of any­one’s tastes.

I’ve never seen an out­sider the­ory come close to the pre­ci­sion of gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity in de­scrib­ing cos­mo­log­i­cal mo­tion and the ac­tion of grav­ity. Murch’s fig­ures give his the­ory an ac­cu­racy of about 98 per­cent, which may sound like a lot, yet it’s triv­ial com­pared with the 99.9999999999+ per­cent ac­cu­racy of­fered by gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity, whose equa­tions help GPS satel­lites de­ter­mine your po­si­tion on Earth to within a few me­ters. When­ever you use your phone to lo­cate the near­est Chi­nese restau­rant, you’re call­ing on rel­a­tiv­ity.

Physics out­siders are in­ter­est­ing, I be­lieve, and Murch is a won­drous ex­am­ple, not for their sin­gu­lar the­o­ries but be­cause col­lec­tively they raise im­por­tant ques­tions about the ways science is re­ceived and per­ceived in our so­ci­ety. Ein­stein’s quote sums up a key is­sue: In pub­lic perception, imag­i­na­tion is now widely re­garded as a pri­mary driver of the­o­ret­i­cal physics. Ein­stein is seen to have imag­ined rel­a­tive space and time, while quan­tum the­o­rists are seen to have imag­ined the un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple and wave-par­ti­cle du­al­ity. So much cur­rent dis­course about physics, in­clud­ing from physi­cists them­selves, in­sists on physics as an imag­i­na­tive en­deavor. Science mag­a­zines reg­u­larly tout as­tound­ing un­proved the­o­ries: 10-di­men­sional space­time, parallel uni­verses, mul­ti­verses, black-hole time ma­chines and so on.

While all this serves a thrilling and pow­er­ful PR pur­pose for science, what gets lost in trans­la­tion is that Ein­stein de­vel­oped his con­cept of rel­a­tive space and time in re­sponse to mun­dane phe­nom­ena, in­clud­ing the mo­tion of charged par­ti­cles through mag­netic fields, and his spe­cial-rel­a­tiv­ity equa­tions made pre­cise pre­dic­tions about how th­ese bor­ing lit­tle par­ti­cles be­have. Quan­tum the­ory also evolved out of un­sexy de­tails about such things as heated boxes and con­duct­ing met­als. The big, sexy meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions came later and would be mean­ing­less to science if they weren’t an­chored in rou­tine facts.

The con­fu­sion be­set­ting out­sider the­o­rists is in part a re­flec­tion of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of physics as a con­jur­ing act. Imag­i­na­tion may en­cir­cle the world, but as Ein­stein — that fa­mous patent of­fice clerk — would be the first to ad­mit, it’s the fini­tude of knowledge that makes mi­crochips run and GPS satel­lites fly. Mar­garet Wertheim, a science writer, is the au­thor of “Physics on the Fringe” and “The Pearly Gates of Cy­berspace: A His­tory of Space From Dante to the In­ter­net.”


Wal­ter Murch, a Hol­ly­wood film-and-sound edi­tor with no for­mal sci­en­tific train­ing, has de­vel­oped a the­ory that he be­lieves sug­gests ex­ten­sions to Ein­stein’s gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity.


WAVES PASS­ING IN THE NIGHT Wal­ter Murch in the Land of the Astro­physi­cists By Lawrence Weschler Blooms­bury. 162 pp. $25

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.