Archive for Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Weird science

The speed at which crackpot theorists deluge KU physicist with rubbish is constant

December 7, 2004


Robert Henderson has written a scientific paper claiming that Einstein's special theory of relativity -- the theory that states, among other things, the speed of light is constant -- is dead wrong.

In "Special Relativity: The Greatest Scientific Deception of All Time," Henderson writes that physicists everywhere have been misled. And he uses only basic high school algebra in his attempt to disprove Einstein's conclusions.

Henderson is not a high-profile physicist (he earned an electrical engineering degree in 1950), but his theory sounds like the stuff of scientific revolutions.

And on the surface, his paper appears valid. The sentences are long and convoluted, much like most academic papers. Henderson even invokes well-known and legitimate experiments to support his case. To get noticed, he has sent his books, pamphlets and papers to 65 universities in the United States and England.

So why haven't we heard of Henderson's theory? After all, Einstein himself was a physics outsider -- just a patent clerk -- when, in 1905, he published four seminal physics papers. Einstein showed that although it's difficult, outsiders can shake things up in science.

So far, Henderson's work hasn't shaken up much.

"None of these universities have responded in a favorable way," he said recently. "A few have replied that they are not interested in reading anything that is critical of Einstein, who is the greatest thinker of all time."

Kansas University cosmologist Adrian Melott is sure Henderson's theory and others like it that end up at the KU physics department won't make the cut.

They are in a class of theories Melott and other physicists commonly call "crank" or "crackpot."

Misguided theories on topics from relativity to the big bang arrive in the physics department at the rate of about a couple a month. The theories mostly take the form of cryptic letters, with many capitalized words, exclamation marks, a sense of urgency and, undoubtedly, conceptual errors. When they come, Melott looks at them all.

"Some (papers) are so incoherent that you can't even say what they're saying, let alone what's wrong with them," he says.

Fundamental questions

But compared to most crank physics theories, Henderson's paper isn't bad. It's nicely typed and includes an addendum. On reading it, however, a physicist notes that the math is simplistic and its conclusions are not supported. It wouldn't hold up to the scrutiny of peer review.

But KU doesn't receive just letters that detail new or reworked theories.

"The most bizarre one I got was a six-hour long video tape of a guy lecturing in front of a black board, in his basement, in the rec room, about his (unification) theory," Melott recalls. When asked if any of it made sense, he replies flatly, "Not really."

Anyone can submit research to a peer-reviewed scientific journal, regardless of background or professional affiliation. Most of the time, however, these "outsider" theorists don't choose journals as their path to legitimization.

"They're trying to get people to pay attention," Melott says. And for the most part, the people they want to listen are physicists.

¢ It's composed on a typewriter.¢ It uses excessive amounts of capitalized words.¢ It includes schematics or drawings in the margins or superimposed on the text.¢ It is written with a sense of urgency.¢ A picture of the author accompanies the paper.¢ It includes a statement of copyright or patent pending.

Targeting physicists makes sense.

Steve Ilardi, KU psychology professor and recent recipient of the H.O.P.E. award for teaching excellence, says physicists are the "obvious targets." That's because they "deal with the most fundamental scientific questions about nature and the universe," he says.

If physicists are targets, then Melott is the bull's eye. His cosmology research investigates universe origins, and he has a high profile because of recent press attention on his mass extinction theories.

"There are more (letters) if I'm in the news," he says.

Ilardi himself has received a few such letters while at the KU psychology department, mostly about telepathy and paranormal phenomenon. "Interestingly, each one struck me as having likely been composed by someone suffering from psychotic-spectrum disorder," he says.

Someone with the disorder usually displays delusional thinking, hallucinations and frequently some language disturbance. Schizophrenia is the archetypal example.

From clueless to crazy

Sometimes breaking into science from the outside seems impossible. The impenetrability itself can fuel psychotic behavior, Ilardi says. He says it could be seen as "evidence of some form of grand conspiracy."

There are, of course, "many non-psychotic 'amateur' scientists who believe they've created important scientific theories far outside the scientific mainstream," Ilardi says. But sometimes, he claims, the people who write such letters aren't good with reality checks or suffer from a form of narcissism that keeps them from seeing flaws in their theories.

Melott also sees two basic types of people who send their theories to the physics department.

"Within the cranks, there are some that just don't understand things well. And then there are others that are nuts. And then shading in between," he says.

Do any of the letters get replies from the KU physics department?

Melott doesn't respond, but he does try to foster a discourse between letter writers themselves. He always has a letter on file, so when a new one arrives, he just sends the previous letter to the new writer.

By ignoring these theories, it may seem like scientists are maintaining an elitist attitude. But Melott says he is receptive to new ideas. Unfortunately, none that have landed on his desk are sound enough to pursue. "I don't know of any legit results coming out of one of these, but that doesn't mean there aren't any," he says.

In the meantime, however, Henderson's anti-relativity arguments sit in a crackpot science purgatory with many other unsuccessful theories. As small consolation, he is far from alone.

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