I have a review of Margaret Wertheim’s wonderful new book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything up today at Bookforum. Wertheim has been collecting examples of outsider theoretical physics for fifteen years, and in Physics on the Fringe she considers what drives people to try to piece together the laws of the universe entirely on their own. As she follows the life and work of the “fringe theorizer” Jim Carter, who, like many outsider physicists, rejects math-heavy field theory in favor of his own home-spun ideas, she examines the professionalization of physics, the rise of abstract mathematics, and the oft-ignored question of who has been left behind as we march toward a “theory of everything.” One of my favorite parts the book
that I had to leave out of the review is Wertheim’s discussion of Michael Faraday. [Edited to add: a version of my discussion of Faraday is now included in the Bookforum review as well.]
Michael Faraday, the experimental physicist who did pioneering work on electromagnetism in the early nineteenth century, walked the fine line between insider and outsider in a way that is nearly impossible to do today. Faraday grew up poor and began his scientific career as a bottle washer in a laboratory in London’s Royal Institution. Like Carter, he had no university education and puzzled through the mysteries of the universe largely on his own. Unlike Carter, he was eventually regarded as a genius and recognized as one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time. In fact, it was Faraday who first developed field theory after sprinkling iron filings near a magnet and observing the predictable patterns they formed. “Ironically,” Wertheim writes of Carter, “the one major figure in the history of physics whose life story in some respects paralleled his own had been the source of an idea he could not stomach.”
Faraday lived at a time when the boundaries between amateur experimentalist and professional scientist weren’t quite as rigid as they are today, but he, too, felt the sting of being ignored by the academy. It wasn’t until the more respected physicist James Clerk Maxwell turned the results of Faraday’s experiments into differential equations that the physics community embraced field theory, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, the telecommunications industry, home electricity, and quantum mechanics. Ironically, Faraday’s lack of a formal education meant that he couldn’t understand Maxwell’s equations; Wertheim tells us that he “died a hero, but an alien in the world he had helped create,” and it’s easy to imagine him sympathizing with Carter and the other outsider physicists who still feel left out of that world today.
It is a common lament among science writers that science doesn’t follow the news cycle. Discoveries can be few and far between, and they are nearly always interspersed with unexpected tangents, false starts and dead ends—all of which can be lost on the way to the final report. When experiments are reduced to their results, they lose their texture—and we, the public, lose any sense of what it is like to actually do science.
Visiting labs is one of the best ways to see experimental science in action. I should know—I’ve been to a lot of them. On this blog, I hope to extend my sights beyond the country’s biggest physics labs and focus on laboratories of all kinds, including ones that stretch the very definition of the word. What do labs look like? Feel like? Smell like? Where are they, exactly? Who works in them? And why?
Once I get up and running, you can expect me to post about one lab visit every week or so. Supplemental material about the science I saw, the people I met, the history of the place, or anything else that strikes my fancy will be posted in between. I will mostly be visiting labs in and around southern California, though you will see dispatches from places that may surprise you as well. Comments and (constructive) criticism are encouraged. Please stay tuned!