Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and author of “Physics on the Fringe,” a sociological study of outsider science, and “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet.”
‘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 “Titius-Bode” 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.
By Lawrence Weschler
Bloomsbury. 162 pp. $25