1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

Discuss in my forum

Andrew Zimmerman Jones

A Word to Physics Cranks

By February 17, 2012

Follow me on:

Cosmologist Sean CarrollOn 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!


February 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm
(1) Allen Esterson says:

Andrew: Many thanks for a refreshingly informative article. Just one tiny quibble. Though as you say Einstein had thoroughly familiarised himself with those areas of physics in which he produced epoch-making work from 1905 onwards, it is not quite the case that (as I think is implied above) he had a Ph.D. when he submitted the celebrated 1905 papers on Brownian motion, the photon theory of light, and special relativity to “Annalen der Physik”. In early 1902 he had withdrawn his first submission of a doctoral dissertation, presumably in anticipation that it would have been rejected by his supervisor. His submission of a completely fresh dissertation was made in the month following his sending the special relativity paper to “Annalen der Physik”, and the “Expert Opinion” granting the doctorate appeared in late July 1905.

My excuse for making this pedantic point is that the Expert Opinion puts to rest the widely-circulating but erroneous notion that Einstein was mediocre at mathematics. The Zurich University professor of physics Alfred Kleiner noted that the arguments and calculations Einstein carried out were among the most difficult ones in hydrodynamics such that only someone possessing the necessary perspicacity in the handling of mathematical and physical problems would dare tackle them. The main part of the dissertation that contained the difficult mathematics was therefore given to a pure mathematician colleague, who pronounced that Einstein’s manner of treatment of the material demonstrated “a thorough command of the mathematical methods involved”.

February 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm
(2) physics says:

Excellent points, Allen. I think you are correct (although I’d have to check some resources to know for sure). I believe his Ph.D. was awarded after the special relativity paper, but he’d completed all of his related coursework by that point … it was just a matter of finishing up his dissertation and getting it approved (not to imply that this is a small feat). And yes, he was certainly very mathematically adept, despite the rumors that developed. Though a case can be made that he had some mathematical stumbling in his youth, he was a first-rate mathematician by 1905. Thanks for the excellent observations!

February 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm
(3) Allen Esterson says:

I’m sure you’re right in that Einstein would have done all the preparatory work for his PhD thesis prior to writing the 1905 papers — it was the final writing up and submission that came after the relativity paper

“Though a case can be made that he had some mathematical stumbling in his youth.”

I think you’ll find that this is not so. By self-study he had achieved university entrance level mathematics by the time he was 16. When he took the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic entrance examinations at the age of sixteen and a half (he had to obtain special permission from the Director as the normal minimum age was eighteen) he failed in most topics (he had been out of the school system in Italy with his emigrant parents for the first eight months of 1895) but his physics and mathematics grades were so excellent that the physics professor Heinrich Weber invited him to audit his second year classes. Instead Einstein went to a Swiss Cantonal school to catch up with his other subjects. In the Matura (University entrance level) exams in 1896 he obtained maximum grades in five subjects, including physics and the three mathematical topics.

February 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm
(4) Dathan says:

The best physics we know stop at the quantum paradoxes. Youíre still missing a unified field theory. Itís possible that this theory includes the psychic. Itís possible that the unified field is contemplative in nature. You have no idea if underneath this holographic simulation itís all magic.

Sean Carrol lectures that telekinesis is impossible. He declined an invitation to witness it performed firsthand. He chooses to remain myopic and is perhaps the most dangerous educator because he precludes other possibilities. What he needs is a paradigm shift and it’s possible it will come from outside the pedagogy of contemporary physics.

February 27, 2012 at 9:41 pm
(5) physics says:

Dathan – Sean Carroll is an astrophysicist and cosmologist, so even if someone in the physics community were to come forward to witness a successful effort at telekinesis, it’s not clear why he would be the person to do it. Unless the telekinesis involves moving a planet out of orbit or something which, while impressive, would be way more dangerous than anything that a myopic physicist could do. :)

Seriously, though, there is a prize available for anyone who can exhibit proof of a paranormal ability. I don’t remember the name of it, but the prize is over $1 million, I believe, and they are regularly and actively looking for people to attempt it. I can guarantee you that there would be few people more excited than the skeptical community (as a whole – there would be a few exceptions) to discover something like that to study, if there were solid evidence of it working.

February 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm
(6) gewisn says:

Please re-read the article and see if you can figure out who he is talking about. A hint: it’s not the authors of comments 1-3.

February 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm
(7) Hans Stocker says:

I knew Albert Einstein’s grandson, Bernhard Ceasar Einstein, as a friend, fellow student, helped him prepare for the diploma at ETH, persuaded him to join me at Texas Instruments and roomed together for six months in Dallas, TX before his wife – who finished her M.D. in Berne, Switzerland – joined him.
Bernhard told me that his Grandfather , Albert, was a poor mathematician and needed the the assistance of his first wife for some of his calculations. I don’t know what to believe – maybe Bernhard fell for the rumors.

February 28, 2012 at 1:57 am
(8) Ken Koskinen says:

Dathan, you and your telekinetic friend(s) should contact the James Randi Educational Foundation. Do the telekinetic demo under controlled conditions and pick up a cool $1 million dollars. I even have their URL : http://www.randi.org/site/

After you and/or your contacts do it, you will become world famous due to the publicity. In the meantime … the world is waiting!

Einstein not only understood the physics of his day, he also had good abilities to imagine and visualize. Hence his thought experiments are still famous today. I think this ability is more important than even doing mathematics, not to downplay the later. There were hundreds of Ph.D(s) in his day who did not contribute much to the march of physics but he did! It is the same today.

It would be unexpected and unusual but someone who doesn’t have a Ph.D but is intuitive (like Einstein) might still be able to make a contribution. However such a person would suffer from not having credentials as the system is biased against outsiders. The later is for some very good reasons as Carroll has pointed out but even so, if someone had something worthy and did not have the credentials they would be looking at a higher mountain to climb. Yes … the jealousy and biases would probably add to them being ignored or rejected. You might think physicists are all like Spock, but you’d be wrong. They feel emotions and well … I think you get it!

February 29, 2012 at 1:31 am
(9) Allen Esterson says:

“Bernhard told me that his Grandfather , Albert, was a poor mathematician and needed the the assistance of his first wife for some of his calculations.”

Hans: I fear your friend was a victim of urban myth. Einstein achieved university entrance level in geometry, algebra and differential and integral calculus by self-study the time he was 16. When he took the Matura (university entrance level exams) at a Swiss Cantonal school while still only 17 he obtained maximum grades in the three mathematical subjects. At Zurich Polytechnic his grades in mathematical subjects in the intermediate and final diploma exams were either 5.5 or 6 on a scale 1-6. When he obtained his PhD at Zurich University in 1905 the “Expert Opinion” explicitly praised his mathematical achievement in tackling some of the most difficult problems in hydrodynamics. On the other hand his first wife’s excellent grades in mathematics at high school were not maintained at the Polytechnic. Her grades in the Polytechnic mathematics entrance exams, coursework grades, and intermediate and final diploma grades were general moderate (averaging around 4.5 on a scale 1-6), and she obtained a very poor 2.5 in theory of functions in the final exams in 1900. When she retook the exams the following year her mathematics grade only improved to 3.5. (She failed both times.)

Einstein’s mathematical abilities were well able to cope with what he needed for the early period of his scientific career, and he only turned to his pure mathematician friend Marcel Grossman for help (in 1912) when he found he needed more esoteric mathematics to develop his gravitational theory to General Relativity (1915).

March 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm
(10) Stephen says:

What if Einstein had trouble in math in his early school years? What if it were true? What if it is true? Who cares? He clearly could handle math when he was older. And there’s been tons of time to check his work. There are lots of adults who became great who started slow – late walking and talking, mediocre performance through 7th grade, and so on.

In Canada, five year old kids play hockey. But the kids born in January are much older than the kids born in December. So, they’re naturally better at hockey when they’re five. And, the coaches favor the better players. They get more attention, more practice, so they stay better. As a result, professional hockey players in Canada have birthdays in January through about March. But who really cares how good five year olds are? What people care about are the professionals. So one could quadruple the talent pool in Canada by segregating five year olds into 3 month groups. It would improve the professional teams in a huge way. But, that’s not what they do. Well, i suppose some Canadians should be left over for physics.

May 7, 2012 at 6:29 am
(11) read more says:

Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next post thanks once again.

August 4, 2012 at 12:55 am
(12) zhuaiygbm says:

Give rise to persuaded that your cosy business has contingency plans to act with unexpected or infrequent difficulties. Salary notoriety so that you can do homage signs of in the cards impose on ahead it happens, instead of being surprised. You can’t escape choppy times entirely, but a honourable contingency pattern makes it much easier to sickly the storm.

Make merry every little happy result along your journey. Starting a haunt affair can be a thankless process, strikingly when you are laying foundation and procure yet to be aware any results. Remain away from making comparisons of your efforts to those of other people — it whim only taunt you down. Hub on your efforts, and felicitate yourself for every agreement with completed.

Seek from your accountant which items you can author a register off the mark on your taxes in search your haunt business. I know that I can file business dinners, gas I acquisition when driving allowing for regarding cultivate, printer ink, computer purchases, and scads other items. You can also involve a percentage of your tear, mortgage, phone bills, and utilities.

You should be handy to feel for suddenly to all purchaser inquiries when you despatch your available business. The speed of your response is probably the single greatest consideration your customers will avail oneself of to mediate your standing of chap service. Be tried that you send revealed at least a minimal answer to an search as speedily as you can.

With all of the data you condign gained, you should start to feel some trust with ways to be thriving with your home business. Have a stab your defeat to use what you’ve expert from this article and form your own strategies in search good fortune from it. If you do that, then you should procure no trouble succeeding.

August 24, 2012 at 1:56 am
(13) water damage restoration says:

Hey! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers?
I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on.
Any tips?

August 30, 2013 at 3:44 am
(14) Piano for Sale says:

Remarkable issues here. I am very glad to peer your post.
Thanks so much and I am having a look ahead to contact you.

Will you kindly drop me a mail?

August 30, 2013 at 3:49 am
(15) piano movers chicago says:

What she said. ^^^^^. . There are different learning
styles. I knew two guys who decided to learn piano
and were performing master works within a year. They would both probably classified
with some sort of autism today. I knew them both well and was
comfortable to ask them how they progressed so rapidly. They both answered that it was “all mathematical.” They didn’t
see musical notes the same way I do. They saw fractional divisions
of time expressed in different relation to other minute
slices of time. If I do say, that’s what their performance sounded like, too.
It was more like listening to a music box play a Soussa piece than
a brass band.. . Some people who play beautifully have never read a note in their
life, including internationally known artists and Grammy winners.
I’m not just thinking if blind musicians, either.. . Clearly there are many different paths to the goal..
. If you are trying to learn by yourself,
maybe you should take lessons for a year just to get a jump
start. You probably are not starting at “first grade” level,
but you should. Graded materials may seem childish, but
they are structured that way for a reason..

. I know you and you are by no means stupid.
You are very methodic, analytic, and literal.
You may be trying a quick learning system “as seen on TV,” but their approach might not be suited to your intellect.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Physics

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.