On a recent episode of the podcast The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, there was a great interview with physicist Sean Carroll. (Here's a link directly to that episode's show notes.) Sean is a cosmologist who explores fundamental mysteries of the universe, such as the nature of time, which he explored in his book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.
Toward the end of the interview, Sean is asked whether or not he's approached by "cranks trying to explain to you their physics of everything." In response, he said he'd already been contacted once since the interview began.
I can certainly relate to this. I, too, get a lot of e-mails from people who believe that they have found the missing theoretical nugget that explains the mysteries of the universe.†Here are Carroll's thoughts on when these sorts of messages, which are roughly in accord with my own:
If it's a question, especially if it's from a student younger than 25 or someone older than 70, then I'll try to answer it, because those people are most likely to have questions. †In between those ages, people are most likely to tell me answers and say here's my theory and I hope that someone will finally listen to me.... I don't pay much attention to those....
The crank phenomenon is sociologically incredibly interesting. I think that there's essentially nothing that it adds to the progress of science, because science is hard.... I don't think that the problem is people who just make stuff up. It's people who think they can get the right answer just by thinking about it without asking what anyone else has ever thought about.
One of the ways I put it to them face to face is, "You're asking me to spend time reading and understanding your theory. So before I do that, I would like you to take the time to read and understand my theory, which is every working scientist's theory, namely the Standard Model of Particle Physics, based on Quantum Field Theory, plus general relativity." Very, very few of these people have really mastered the basics that any graduate student who gets a Ph.D. in this field has mastered a long time ago.
There are some fields that attract people like this, the ones where the questions are easy enough to phrase that people can take a stab at answering them. What is gravity? What's healthy for you? How did evolution work? You know, if you have a questions about "What is the cross-section of a pi-meson that interacts with a k-meson?" ... No cranks are really working that out, because they don't know what it means and they don't care about it....
Einstein did us a great disservice by failing to get a job early and going to the patent office. That gives a lot of license to people to say, "Einstein today would never have succeeded." What they don't appreciate is that Einstein understood the physics of his time better than anyone. He was not an outsider in that sense. He was very much working within the system. He just had trouble getting a job, which a lot of good people do.
There's a lot of great stuff in that passage. The discussion is largely predicated on Margaret Wertheim's Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. This is the "sociologically intriguing" aspect that Carroll mentions, though he doesn't feel these alternative theories really have much worth toward driving science progress.
I especially like Carroll's concluding discussion about Albert Einstein. The "patent clerk" mythology around Einstein is compelling and pervasive, so it's easy to overlook the fact that he did already have a Ph.D. and was fully educated about the physics theories of the day. He wasn't some self-taught bumpkin who just happened to develop an insight, but rather a brilliant, university-educated theoretical physicist who, as Carroll points out, had trouble finding a university position (in part, so the story goes, because one of his professors disliked him and gave him poor recommendations)
For any fringe or outsider physicists who are thinking of sending me their pet theories, however, I will point out a simple reason not to do so:
I have an undergraduate degree in physics and work as a science writer, not an active theoretical physicist. Since I did not go to graduate school for physics, I have not mastered the ins and outs of quantum field theory, general relativity, or the rest of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. I firmly recognize the limits of my own knowledge and, upon reaching those limits, I consult with physicists who have Ph.D.'s to help me sort out the confusion.
Further, I have neither the the time nor inclination to learn a new, untested theory of the universe ... especially one which involves a whole new mathematical formalism, as many of these armchair theorists seem to start on their own from scratch. I'm perfectly happy to watch from the sidelines as the professionals handle this and then report on the results.
However, we do have an active Physics Forum where you can post such ideas, and I encourage you to do so!