Margaret Wertheim: Physics on the Fringe


Physics on the Fringe describes work done by amateurs, people rejected by the academic establishment and rejecting orthodox academic beliefs. They are often self-taught and ignorant of higher mathematics. Mathematics is the language spoken by the professionals. The amateurs offer an alternative set of visions. Their imagined worlds are concrete rather than abstract, physical rather than mathematical. Many of them belong to the Natural Philosophy Alliance, an informal organization known to its friends as the NPA.

Margaret Wertheim’s book Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything discusses her encounters with the natural philosophers. She is interested in them as characters in a human tragedy, with the seriousness and dignity that tragedy imposes. Her leading character is Jim Carter, and her main theme is the story of his life and work. Unlike most of the philosophical dreamers, Carter is a capable engineer and does real experiments to test his ideas. He runs a successful business that gives him leisure to pursue his dreams. He is a man of many talents, with one fatal flaw. for more on this book go to:

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One critical experience that defined the direction I was to go in as I entered university, and whether I was to go into the sciences or the arts, was my unsuccessful effort to grasp matriculation physics. From early September to some time in November 1962 I tried to disentangle the mysteries of physics. The difficulties associated with acceleration due to gravity, speeds of 32 feet per second per second, et cetera, were beyond me. I must have spent an average of an hour each night in my homework sessions for nearly three months doing physics ‘problems.’

But it was to no avail; I knew I was not going to pass physics if I stayed in that course, so I switched to history several weeks before the Christmas exam. I got the highest mark in the class in history, an 80, and I never attended one class. This seemed to confirm to me that the arts and not the sciences was the direction of my career. I entered university in September of 1963 in an arts degree program. How accurate that confirmation was hardly mattered because without physics in my grade 13 in 1962, my matriculation year in Ontario, the entire world of the sciences, medicine and law, were just not available for me to pursue.