February 16, 2012


Fields Apart: Physics, past and future: a review of The Infinity Puzzle, By Frank Close and Physics on the Fringe, By Margaret Wertheim (Sam Kean, Winter 2012, American Scholar)

The book's star, its driving personality, is Jim Carter, who manages a ramshackle trailer park in Washington state. (Some tenants used to barter guns for rent.) Carter is a genius with his hands--he can fix any car--and runs a booming side business that helps people salvage wreckage from the ocean. And this mechanical aptitude in turn informs his physics. Carter rejects field theory outright, preferring a mechanical universe based on particles he calls "circlons." Circlons look like long springs coiled into a donut, and he has reimagined everything from the big bang to the periodic table in terms of them.

Heavy stuff, but Wertheim notes that Carter is an outsider even among outsiders in that he doesn't take himself too seriously. In one capti- vating scene, Carter transforms a few trashcans and a smoke machine into a device that makes giant smoke rings. Carter believes that smoke rings behave as circlons do at a microscopic level, and the device will allow him to test a few ideas rattling his brain. But instead of getting down to business, he regales his neighbors by puffing rings across his yard all afternoon.

Wertheim uses the scene to make a discomfiting point. It turns out that Carter's smoke-ring experiments mirror almost exactly some experiments in the 1860s by William Thompson. One of the most establishment scientists of all time, Thompson, known as Lord Kelvin, did fundamental work in thermodynamics. But he also championed the idea that atoms behave like convoluted smoke rings on a microscopic level. And like Carter, Kelvin frittered away many happy hours with smoke machines, an aspect of his work that scientists today conveniently ignore.

Posted by at February 16, 2012 6:49 AM

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