'Crackpot' science and hidden genius at physics meeting

APS meeting The American Physical Society meetings are a key venue for presentations of new research

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A bit of advice, should this ever come up: be wary of dubious physics theories. They can lead to murder.

In 1952, Bayard Peakes submitted a 33-page manuscript to a publication of the American Physical Society (APS).

Peakes had an unusual idea. He didn't believe electrons existed, and he had what he thought was a good explanation of why.

But the APS rejected his paper, deeming it "pointless".

Evidently, Peakes was fairly upset by this. He bought a gun and travelled to the APS offices in New York in search of the editor who had spurned him.

When he found that the editor was not around, he shot the APS' 18-year-old secretary instead.

Peakes had given macabre new meaning to the phrase "dangerous idea", and unwittingly started a practice that continues today.

"What we decided was that from then on, any member of the APS could submit an abstract on any subject to any meeting," said Brian Schwartz of the City University of New York, a longtime APS member and former chair of the society's Forum on Physics and Society.

"In the late 1960s during the height of the Vietnam war, people were submitting the peace symbol. I submitted abstracts about the job problem," he told BBC News.

And of course, he said, "there were always crackpot submissions."

'Big questions'

Much of physics dances around the really big questions - what is stuff ultimately made of, when did the Universe begin, how will it end, and so on - the kinds of questions that invite theories and speculation from all corners of humanity.

And when someone can couch their pet theory in the language of mathematics, sometimes it can just about pass for physics proper.

'Crazy' ideas that turned out to be right

  • In 1633, Galileo Galilei was accused of heresy for promoting the Copernican theory, which suggested that the Earth revolved around the sun. This challenged the long held view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe. It eventually become the accepted model of the solar system.
  • In 1859, Charles Darwin presented the theory that species evolve gradually with time, adapting to their environment. Darwin's theory was vehemently attacked, particularly by the Church, as it implied that the Earth had not been created perfectly. However, his ideas soon gained currency and have become the new orthodoxy.
  • Over a century ago it was widely believed that the Earth's continents were fixed in position. But in 1914, after noticing that South America could fit into Africa like a jigsaw puzzle, meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposed that they were once joined together but had gradually drifted apart. Many scientists ridiculed his idea that continents 'ploughed' through the Earth's crust like a ship through pack ice. His ideas were accepted in the 1960s, when the weight of evidence proved impossible to ignore.

Conference organisers have to thematically group hundreds or even thousands of submissions into sessions containing just a few presentations each.

How to give voice to the more… let's call them speculative physics submissions among them?

Put them in sessions all to themselves.

"We can't promise you an audience, we can only give you a microphone and a room. And I think that's important," said Virginia Trimble of the University of California Irvine, who has held positions within the APS for decades.

"I'm a great believer that this is a valuable policy, and I quite often volunteer to chair the sessions of that kind," she told BBC News.

"That kind": the sessions have titles and timings that change from year to year, so that it's not always obvious to the contributors just what kind of session they're presenting to.

"Sometimes crackpots regard each other as crackpots, and are annoyed at being placed in that session," said a chairperson of one such session at this year's April meeting - who should probably remain nameless.

But physics - some of the really tricky stuff - can be so mathematically dense that even the organisers slip up.

Prof Schwartz said that some researchers submit perfectly mainstream work to the meetings, but perhaps sell it badly.

"Sometimes they'll say, 'hey, you put me in with all the crazy papers'," he said.

Two-way street

This isn't just about humouring those who have fringe ideas; there is a two-way exchange going on, said co-chair of the APS April meeting Jonathan Rosner of the University of Chicago.

"The reason for having these presentations is that there is a possibility that someone might get some constructive criticism, they might get some redirection that would put them onto (more accepted ideas)," he told BBC News.

"And students who attend might learn to distinguish the chaff from the wheat - it's a good experience for them to be exposed to this now and then.

"Or the (presenters) may have, through very unlikely means, come upon something but they just don't have the language to connect with us, and we wouldn't want to dismiss something like that."

That last possibility is a compelling one. Take the case of Dan Shechtman, who in 1982 stumbled across an entirely new kind of crystal, but couldn't really explain it. He became known around the "unconventional" sessions at APS meetings.

Dan Shechtman "The boy done good": Prof Shechtman was ridiculed but later received a Nobel

"For two years I did not have anybody who believed my results and was usually ridiculed," he told APS News in 2003.

Clarity eventually came, and with it credibility. Prof Shechtman's work ended up winning him the 2011 Nobel prize for Chemistry.

However, such transformations are rare.

About half of those who present work in the unconventional sessions are repeat visitors - determined to come back year after year and finally convince the community of their grand ideas.

Another session chair told BBC News that "it costs these guys a lot of money - you wish undergraduates could be so engaged".

Prof Trimble added: "Once in a while somebody has the glimmerings of a right idea - although quite often it's already out there in the mainstream community under slightly different language," she said.

"But some of them are certifiable and you just sort of back off very gently and find somebody tall to stand behind."

One wonders what it might have been like to run into Bayard Peakes at an APS meeting.

Yet, the chance to put such researchers on the right track and to hone students' critical skills are enough to convince everyone here that the sessions are a good idea.

And as Prof Schwartz put it, there is always the chance of another story like Prof Shechtman's.

"There are times that something is so ahead of its time, or someone writes it so poorly… that some people can appreciate it and others think it's a little cuckoo," he said.

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