Physics on the Fringe Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything

Margaret Wertheim

Walker Books




336 Pages



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In 1993, Jim Carter, a trailer park owner in Enumclaw, Washington, sent out to a select group of scientists a letter announcing the publication of a book in which he proposed a complete alternative theory of physics. Gravity and matter, the periodic table, and the creation of the universe—all these Carter explained through wildly creative ideas perfected through backyard experiments using garbage cans and a disco fog machine to make giant smoke rings.

For the past fifteen years, acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of Jim Carter and other mavericks and outsiders who invent alternate theories of the universe. By considering the motivations behind their do-it-yourself theories and homemade experiments, Wertheim raises the question of what role an amateur can play in relationship to science. Deeply human, literally fantastical, infused with wit and humor, Physics on the Fringe challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.


Praise for Physics on the Fringe

"Facinating"—The Boston Globe

"Entertaining and philosophically provocative."—The Chonicle of Higher Education

"The book is entertaining—even laugh-out-loud funny in places—but it's equally enlightening."—The Wall Street Journal

"A rare peek into this world of alternative theories, that never loses sight of Carter's humanity—whether one accepts his theory or not."—Discovery News

"Delightful . . . However misguided, the characters in Physics on the Fringe are their own men, doing their own work, like Newton, Faraday, and other past heroes. In some ways, Wertheim's book is a paean to small science."—The American Scholar

"A compelling study . . . Wertheim unfolds a fascinating chronicle of such ‘down the rabbit hole' thinking, but far from taking the ironic high ground, the tone is respectful and sympathetic."—The Outsider

"Wertheim shows that there always have been passionate amateurs storming the gates of mainstream science, and she considers the profound need these outsiders have to define the world on their own terms."—Baltimore Sun

"[An] informative, often witty overview of ‘outsider physicists . . . the crown jewel in her menagerie of eccentric visionaries is James Carter, a do-it-yourself mechanic whose theory of everything has been percolating for five decades . . . far from belittling Carter, Wertheim uses his inspiring example as a potent reminder that today's cranks may be deemed tomorrow's geniuses."—Booklist
"[A] compassionate look at those on the fringe . . . Wertheim covers new ground in this treatment of how science is communicated and what it means for scientific ideas that aren't part of the discussion . . . Both conversational and easy to read, this is an accessible guide to the world of the weird."—Library Journal

"With insight, wit, and warmth, Wertheim offers a look into the hearts and minds of the "outsider" physicists . . . an entry point into a fascinating corner of pseudoscience."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Margaret Wertheim

  • Margaret Wertheim is a science writer who has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired, and many other publications, and is the author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. She founded the nonprofit Institute For Figuring, through which she created the "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef" project, which is now the largest participatory art/science project in the world. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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