Tuesday, 26 April 2011

On receiving strange theories

Part of a visual proof of Fermat's
Last Theorem I was sent
One side effect of writing science books is that people send you their ideas and scientific theories. Some science writers, I'm afraid are very dismissive of this, but I consider it a compliment. Most of the times I can't understand their theories, and if they run to any length I haven't got time to read them in detail, but it at least shows an interest in thinking about how the world works.

It's also true that just occasionally someone has a real, significant idea that they send to a scientist or writer. The physicist Satyendra Nath Bose famously sent Einstein a few pages of scribbled thoughts on the way some particles behave like gasses. Einstein must have received vast quantities of rubbish in the mail, so the fact that he spotted Bose's work was interesting and responded implied that he must have at least glanced at this stuff.

As I'm a writer not a working scientist (and certainly no Einstein) I'm the last person to be able to spot something exciting among the odd and the hair-raising that does make up the majority of such mail, but it does show that being totally dismissive is not the right response.

A diagram I was sent linking my book on light
with Mayan Prophesies and Atlantis
What started me down this line is a couple of emails I've had about a new fundamental theory of physics. I have no doubt whatsoever that this theory is wrong, but it is a real theory rather than a bit of new age handwaving, mentioning 'quantum' to try to give it scientific credibility. Although, as I say, I am totally convinced it is wrong, I think it is worth thinking about because this is a great way to exercise the mental muscles - and because I believe the scientific community should be more open minded, rather than instantly dismissing ideas just because they are 'obviously wrong.'

So here we go. The idea is this. Physics has real trouble with integrating gravity with the other forces. But what if gravity doesn't exist? Let's assume there is no attraction between lumps of matter. But, you say, it's obvious there is attraction because things fall to the ground and planets orbit. Okay, says this theory. Let's imagine that all matter is always expanding. If everything expands at the same rate, you wouldn't notice the change in size. But the gap between objects would naturally shrink - things would fall towards each other. You can also, in a rather strained way, argue for orbits. (See more about it here.)

Now your natural inclination might be to dismiss this instantly - but the fun thing is to think 'Okay, imagine this were true. How would things be? What differences would there be between the theory and what we actually observe.' And as soon as you do that, you are doing real science - and can discover just how stimulating it is.

I'm not going to give away my simple demonstration that the theory doesn't work (though I will say my first attempt failed because I didn't properly shift into an expanding frame viewpoint - you have to remember that you, the observer, and anything you use to make measurements are expanding) - I'm sure, if you give it a try you can come up with one.

I know many scientists and science writers regard these kind of ideas as a waste of time and get quite unpleasant about how stupid they are - but this isn't a very scientific viewpoint. No one has time to explore every single theory in detail. The vast majority are total rubbish. But we ought to glance at them before giving them the brush off, and should not dismiss a theory simply because it takes a very different and eyebrow raising approach. I think the balance should move a little, if only out of common courtesy.

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