Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of everything

What drives a man with no science training to think he can succeed where Einstein and Stephen Hawking have failed? In 1993, James Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, WA, announced the publication of a book in which he proposed a complete alternative theory of physics. Gravity, matter, the periodic table and the creation of the universe – all these Carter explained through wildly inventive ideas dreamed up during a life spent as a gold miner and abalone diver. Carter had perfected his concepts in experiments performed in his own backyard using garbage cans and a fog machine to make giant smoke rings, which in his theory model the structure of subatomic particles.

For the past fifteen years, science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of Carter and other “outsider physicists” – a term she coined as a scientific corollary to “outsider art.” Many of these theorists have no formal scientific training, yet each of them is convinced he has found the true theory of the universe. In this ground-breaking book, Wertheim embarks on a journey of discovery into the world of fringe physics that exists in parallel to, and often hidden from, the scientific mainstream. Beginning with the life of one idiosyncratic individual, Wertheim finds herself drawn towards fundamental questions about the place of theoretical physics in the imaginative landscape of our time.

At the start of the twentieth century, a few pioneering thinkers began to take seriously the work of “outsider artists,” people with no formal training who were producing images of exceptional visual power. Today the world of outsider art has its own system of galleries and stars, some of who have been accepted into the artistic canon. In Physics on the Fringe, Wertheim puts forward a parallel project for science. By asking what drives a man like James Carter, she raises the question of what role, if any, an amateur can play in relationship to science. Deeply human, literally fantastical, infused with wit and humor, Physics on the Fringe, challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.

Published by Walker & Co (New York, 2011, pp336).
ISBN Hardcover: 978-0-8027-1513-5
Click here to purchase book

- For more see Physics on the Fringe book website

– Photo gallery of images from James Carter’s “circlon theory” of physics. [Coming soon]

– video interview where Margaret discusses the book with excepts from her film about Carter's life and work.

– Margaret’s Washington Post essay on outsider science, March 2017. 

Selected Reviews & Praise

“Margaret Wertheim writes beautifully, passionately, and with great humanity about a most unusual mind. This book is ultimately about big things: What is science? What is the universe? And who says?” ―Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

 “With a vivid storyteller's glee, Margaret Wertheim spins us one of those wide looping yarns that starts out all in good antic fun, only to become more and more confoundingly profound. Her sagas of outsider physicists open out onto some of the most intriguing of questions, not least of which are: Who and what gives anyone the right to decide on the legitimacy of anyone else's passions, on what gets to be deemed ‘in bounds' and what not?” ―Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder

 “Maverick science writer Wertheim challenges the right of the scientific establishment to lay claim to the position of gatekeepers of truth… Wertheim raises an important question with broader ramifications.” ―Kirkus

“[An] informative, often witty overview of ‘outsider physicists'…the crown jewel in her menagerie of eccentric visionaries is James Carter, a do-it-yourself mechanic whose theory of everything has been percolating for five decades…. Wertheim uses his inspiring example as a potent reminder that today's cranks may be deemed tomorrow's geniuses.” ―Booklist

“With insight, wit, and warmth, Wertheim offers a look into the hearts and minds of the "outsider" physicists… an entry point into a fascinating corner of pseudoscience.” ―Publishers Weekly

“[A] compassionate look at those on the fringe…Wertheim covers new ground in this treatment of how science is communicated and what it means for scientific ideas that aren't part of the discussion…Both conversational and easy to read, this is an accessible guide to the world of the weird.” ―Library Journal

“Fascinating, bizarre, and provocative…[a] brilliant thesis…Any reader who found pleasure and excitement in The Men Who Stare at Goats or Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons will derive similar joy from this finely wrought, sympathetic, and stimulating survey of gonzo ingenuity in the service of science.” ―Barnes & Noble Review

“Entertaining―even laugh-out-loud funny in places― but it's equally enlightening. In an elegant narrative Ms. Wertheim has taken on one of the knottiest conundrums in the philosophy of science, the demarcation problem―that is, how to find criteria to define the boundary between science and pseudoscience….let's not dismiss outsiders before giving them their day in court, as Ms. Wertheim has done in this splendid book.” ―The Wall Street Journal

“ [a] beautifully written book...Wertheim shows us just how muddy the waters are on the border between what is classed as 'legitimate' and what as 'fringe'.” ―American Scientist

 “Entertaining and philosophically provocative…Wertheim serves up her philosophical punchline toward the end of her book when she turns her attention to mainstream physics and cosmology. She [senses] that some popular suppositions―notably the notion that reality consists of extremely tiny strings wriggling in hyperspaces of a dozen or more dimensions, or that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes―verge on pseudoscience, because they are even less experimentally testable than Carter's circlon theory… On the other hand, Wertheim is gently, affectionately skeptical of the outsider physicists, too…She nonetheless suggests that, given how far mainstream physics has drifted from a grounding in empirical evidence, perhaps we should judge all physics theories according to their beauty, elegance, and craftsmanship.” ―Chronicle of Higher Education