I’m a couple of weeks behind on my podcasts, so I just got around to listening to the episode of This American Life about a guy who’s convinced that Einstein had it all wrong and that his new theory will revolutionize physics. The segment contains a brief interview with my friend John Baez, who is among many other things the author of the Crackpot Index, a (joking) way of assessing the purveyors of radical alternative theories like this.
By the way, if you’re interested in physics and math at all, you really need to poke around John’s web page. He loves explaining math and physics to people, and he’s really good at it. I first got to know him (electronically) when we were both involved in various physics newsgroups back in the ’90’s. For quite a while, we were both moderators of the group sci.physics.research. (He probably gets tired of people mentioning this, but he’s also Joan Baez’s cousin.)
The phenomenon of people thinking they have a revolutionary new theory that will overturn all of 20th-century physics is pretty common. All physicists who work in any area related to relativity know this: we all get self-published articles and books propounding these theories in the mail on a regular basis. I actually just got one in my mailbox today.
I thought that the piece on This American Life was pretty good. I’d be interested to know what non-physicists ended up thinking of the various people involved. I suspect that the physicists interviewed came off as arrogant and intolerant of new ideas. The problem is that these theories really are invariably complete nonsense, and it’s hard to respond to nonsense in a remotely honest way without sounding like a bit of a jerk. (Of course, some physicists really are arrogant and intolerant as well, although not John Baez and not, as far as I know, the other physicist interviewed in the piece.)
It’s interesting to note that these theories almost always involve overthrowing relativity, as opposed to other parts of physics. I think that a big part of the reason for this is the cult of Einstein. He’s a uniquely mythic figure in physics, and so I guess maybe it’s natural that people want to take him down.