In her latest book, Margaret Wertheim gives air time to a group thatâs usually studiously ignored â" outsider physicists. These days commonly referred to as cranks, these men (and, rarely, women) are determined to prove mainstream physics wrong and convince the world of their unique theory of everything â" if only we would listen.
Wertheimâs writing is engaging and informative as she runs through the stories of outsider physicists, both recent and historical. Her focus is Jim Carter, a former abalone diver and now trailer park owner with minimal university training who has spent 50 years developing his own model of reality. Carterâs unusual life history and engagement with experimental, as well as theoretical, science, make for entertaining reading.
But these stories arenât merely to amuse. Wertheim uses them as a prism through which to examine some uncomfortable questions. Particularly in a field that has become staggeringly complex and mystifying, who has the right to engage with science, and how? And who, indeed, has the right to answer these questions? The subjects of Wertheimâs book may be well outside the hegemony, but they raise questions worth pondering, and in the process they offer some fascinating insights into human curiosity and imagination.
Rivqa Rafael is the sub-editor and reviews editor of COSMOS Magazine.