Fringe Science and the Science of Meanness


It should come as no surprise to readers of this column that I’m a big fan of fringe physics history and literature.  When done well,, it can serve to inform and inspire.  Take for example, the Philadelphia Experiment by William Moore.  Mr. Moore never claims that the story he tells about the purported experiments that allegedly made a naval destroyer disappear during World War II are true.  What he does do is construct a chain of credible research and then let the reader come to their own conclusions.  In doing this, he exposes the reader to narratives about electromagnetism, high voltage engineering, special and general relativity, and Einstein’s attempts to create a unified field theory.  As a kid, this book more than anything else inspired my interest in physics and engineering.  Then, there’s the whole Tesla mythos.  Much of the legend surrounding Tesla is patently scientifically unprovable.  Take for example the Tunguska event[1].  Supposedly Tesla used a large antenna near Shoreham, NY to transmit energy over the north pole and blew a large hole in the Siberian countryside.  While this story almost certainly isn’t true, it serves to inspire interest in the man who actually did invent our power distribution system, induction motors, and radio controlled vehicles.  As an aside, if you like stories along the line of the Philadelphia Experiment, and t the Tunguska event, you should check out Jeff Smith’s RASL[2].

In addition to my fringe physics reading, I also read quite a few science blogs, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately towards what I’ll call fringe-bashing.  The trend may have been inspired by the fervor of the climate change activists, or maybe by the anit-creationists, both of whom have valid reasons for censuring psuedo-scientific theories.  I don’t know it’s origin, but I define fringe-bashing is the practice of singling out an article for being un-scientific in it’s viewpoint or implications and then calling the intelligence of the author into question, taunting, and generally writing in a denigrating manner rather than simply and objectively stating the facts of the scientific matter in a polite and helpful manner.  

To me fringe-bashing comes across as nothing more than high-handed meanness, and then of course, there’s always the matter of stones and glass houses.  Recently, while reading the weekly summary of interesting scientific articles at Cocktail Party Physics[3], a blog published by Scientific American, I came across a link to a post[4] on the proper use of the term ‘dimension’.  Since I’m currently working on exercises involving Lorentz contractions and time dilation,(basically four-dimensional space-time), I happily clicked on through.  What I arrived at was a blistering diatribe written by PhD computer scientist, Mark Chu-Carroll, about a ‘crackpots’ improper use of the word dimension.  Apparently, the ‘crackpot’ had the audacity to write the following, (among other things)

Energy can travel at the speed of light, and as Special Relativity tells us, from the perspective of light speed it takes no time to travel any distance. In this way, energy is not bound by time and space the way matter is. Therefore, it is in a way five-dimensional, or beyond time.

So, this is a rather philosophical use of the term five-dimensional.  I’ll give you that.  The author of the blog, however, went on a five paragraph rant starting with

Bzzt, no.
Energy does not travel. Light travels, and light can transmit energy, but light isn’t energy. Or, from another perspective, light is energy: but so is everything else. Matter and energy are the same thing.
From the perspective of light speed time most certainly does pass, and it does take plenty of time to travel a distance.

and after illustrating the theory of time dilation for awhile ends with,

It’s not that there’s some magic thing about light that makes it move while time stops for it. Light is massless, so it can move at the speed of light. Time dilation doesn’t apply because it has no mass.

Which is all very nice, except for one thing.  Here’s what Brian Greene author of “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality” and famed PBS popular scientist has to say about how light experiences time.

A watch worn by a particle of light would not tick at all  Light realizes the dream of Ponce de Leon and the cosmetics industry; it doesn’t age.

Hunh…  so… anyway. Maybe we do need to correct ‘bad’ science when we find it.  Maybe someone does need to protect the internet at large from the dread of crackpottery, but in this case I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite scientists, Dr. J. B. Tatum[5],

Phillips opened his article by writing about “deep ignorance and antiscientific attitudes” concerning collecting. I am one of those who-in spite of 20 years of active scientific research (although not in ornithology)-hold to those very views that Phillips criticizes, and I do not feel that he does great credit to his own arguments or to ornithology as a whole by the use of such intemperate language.

In science as in most aspects of life,intemperate language is simply neither necessary or classy.


1.  The Tunguska Event

2.  RASL

3.  Cocktail Party Phyiscs

4.  New Dimensions of Crackpottery

5.  On Killing Birds

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