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Outsider Scientists Are Trying to Figure Out the Universe

Outsider scientists—passionate experimenters and observers who work outside of traditional academia—have come up with a lot of theories seeking to explain the intricacies of everything.

by Megan Lent
Dec 6 2013, 9:46pm

Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The secrets of the universe have all been figured out, thanks to a guy who owns a trailer park in Washington.

Jim Carter has discovered what he says explains, well, everything. He’s a member of a community known as outsider scientists— experimenters and casual academics who make their own observations, write their own papers, and create and dispute theories outside of the realm of mainstream science. Jim is the co-founder of the Natural Philosophy Alliance, an organization that seeks to “provide worldwide forums for expression and discussion of diverse scientific theories.” 

Previously an abalone diver, meteorite hunter, gold miner, and inventor, Jim has developed a theory that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, interlocking spirals of inertial mass that he terms “circlons.” I’m tentative to call it a theory, because he doesn't; he considers circlons to be a principle, to be just the way things are. And they’re the way all things are. Circlon movement explains everything from cosmic rays to UFOs to the Big Bang. The mechanical movement of these “knotted things that can be compared with either smoke rings or knotted springs” would, if true, replace all of quantum mechanics.

He also writes that gravity is caused by the expansion of the universe, and titled his 1970 book Gravity Does Not Exist (later editions changed it to Gravitation Does Not Exist.) That's difficult to accept. Sure, lots of scientific theories are proven and disproven as time passes, but it’s hard to counter gravity. But he’s doing it anyway: he says that gravity points up, that attraction does not exist, and that it’s all merely the third dimension of time. So basically, it’s easy to completely discredit Jim Carter.

Jim sent me a copy of his latest work, Pure Experimental Physics Without Theory. It’s 114 obtuse pages—reading his work took me back to the complete confusion of trudging through a 9th grade physics textbook, in that it was probably very simplistic but seemed complicated as fuck to my untrained eyes—but the crux of it is the circlon. According to his website, “the principle of Circlon Synchronicity is basically an opposite anti-theory to the standard theories of special relativity.”

Einstein’s theory postulates that the laws of physics are the same in all non-accelerating systems, and that the speed of light in a vacuum does not change for different observers, even if the light source’s motion changes. This theory was a huge breakthrough: it unified space and time. And it’s widely accepted, even among outsider scientists. But not by Jim Carter.

Margaret Wertheim has made a study of outsider scientists, and particularly of Jim, having written Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. She writes that the scientists “are unanimous in their view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language—in other words, mathematics—that is incomprehensible to most human beings.” She approaches outsider scientists like they’re her pack of beloved three-legged dogs: she sees them not so much as rejecting science, but as trying to make it more accessible.

Margaret Wertheim giving a TED talk, via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Jim’s website attempts to be accessible, laying out his main points in headlined sections. It’s a fascinating collection of facts mixed in with completely unprovable statements. But this highlights something troubling: so much of modern science is difficult to prove. Margaret noted that string theory itself borders on pseudoscience. This is what gives the outsider scientists some validity: no one really has any clue what’s going on when it comes to very large or very small things.

What Jim is doing is providing a route for challenging the scientific establishment. Anyone can come up with a theory, and write a paper or book about it. Take David Birnbaum: a New York jeweler by day, he has written a 500+ page treatise on the nature of the universe, chalking everything up to potential. “Potential is divine in that it is all-transcendent and life-giving,” he told me over e-mail. “The quest for potential drives the cosmic order. Potential ignited the Big Bang, and is the guiding force behind life, evolution, consciousness, and love, among other key dynamics.” Potential is his circlon: something that doesn’t need to be proved, but rather, is the glue holding the entire universe together. It’s godlike.

The Natural Philosophy Alliance states that their mission is “to provide worldwide forums for expression and discussion of diverse scientific theories, observations, and experiments by which an improved natural philosophy of the structures and processes of our visible world and extended universe may be developed.” Elsewhere on their site is a list of problems in mainstream science, which is the place to find criticisms of the Big Bang, relativity, plate tectonics, and gravity. They agree on very little, except that science has become too political and math-based.

I spoke with a much less radical member of the NPA, Steve Puetz, who told me that his main problems with science are the peer-review process and the recent concept that philosophy is “unnecessary baggage.” He thinks that professors can teach science in a different way, exploring uncertainty and new methods.

NPA member Steve Puetz

After all, alternative theories keep science from stagnating. The outsider scientists see themselves as part of a greater tradition, stemming from Galileo all the way to Isaac Newton. All the great scientific discoveries, they told me, have come from those outside of traditional academia. David said that there are many classical Jewish philosophers who held totally different day jobs. This devotion to seeking truth in the same style as their scientific ancestors gives outsider science its purpose.

Wertheim implied in her article that a sense of alienation fuels the outsider scientists, but no one I talked to fit the stereotype I expected: paranoid conspiracy theorists looking for an opportunity to disgrace the scientific community. Mostly, they’re just curious souls. Even so, their ideas run from the inconsequential (NPA member Barry Springer thinks that the law of gravitation isn’t wrong, but merely incomplete) to the bizarre (like Garret Lisi’s an Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which is a bunch of equations seeking to find one “beautiful” solution tying up all of physics, mathematics, and the universe.)

The thing with having so many people having so many solutions is that the majority (if not all) of them have to be wrong. Margaret Wertheim described going to a NPA convention as like “watching thirty Jesus Christs,” a reference to the experiment in which three schizophrenics who all believed themselves to be Jesus were placed in a room together. “Everybody had the Answer. Everybody was the One.” Sheldon Greaves, of the Citizen Scientists League, told me that, in his experience, none of the one true answer theories are “anywhere close to being right. When you see a paper proposing a ‘theory of everything’ in it without a single equation, you know right there it’s worthless.” Steve agreed, but added that all of the theories can probably be consolidated to something cohesive and non-contradictory. Birnbaum and Carter, of course, are confident that they have figured out the two one answers explaining the nature of the universe.

Outsider scientists are, in many ways, as immune to criticism as the establishment figures they're challenging. The favorite rhetorical shield of the eccentric is saying that people are "afraid" of their ideas. Last year, Birnbaum held a conference at Bard College for a collection of academics and scientists entirely on his ideas on metaphysics, leaving the attendees somewhat dumfounded. He is adamant that the scientific community is actively trying to “destroy the outsider.” “We are no longer satisfied to be told, ‘Do not ask too many questions because we are the ‘priesthood,’ and we know much better than you ever will,’” he said.  “I’m not sure the established philosophy hierarchy wants an outsider to ‘show them the light.’”

Jim Carter, however, is probably not going to change any minds within the mainstream scientific community, but that's not stopping him and others from trying.