Geniuses, Crackpots and a Grand Unified Theory


New York Times, January 4, 2000

Physicists, if they are successful enough to penetrate the public consciousness, learn that with fame come fans with -- to put it mildly -- eccentric ideas.

These cosmic theorizers, who might be defined as obsessed, confused, intellectually outmatched or just plain weird proponents of demonstrably incorrect ideas, maintain a voluminous correspondence with noted physicists and turn up at their talks and speeches with the reliability of paparazzi chasing princesses and pop artists.

"I get about a grand unified theory a month," said Dr. Steven Chu, a physicist at Stanford, as he hurried toward an escalator after a talk. He had just disentangled himself from an argumentative man in a sport jacket who was carrying copies of several century-old papers by Albert Einstein.

Sure enough, the topic on the man's mind, as he pointed vigorously at passages in the papers, was his theory of how all of physics could be knitted together with one or two revolutionary ideas.

What may be more surprising is that Dr. Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, did not simply brush off someone from whom he clearly had so little to learn. Dr. Chu debated a few points with him, wished him well and gently made a getaway.

Scientists, even those with Dr. Chu's high-powered credentials, display a willingness to engage the woolliest of theorists more often than might be believed. The reasons vary, ranging from fear of insulting someone who does not seem quite stable to tolerance of a scientist who, outside of a single, inexplicable obsession, does solid work. The result is that certified geniuses and unmistakable crackpots frequently come in contact.

Einstein was no exception. Once, in the 1940's, he met for four hours with Wilhelm Reich, who believed that a box called an Orgone Accumulator could concentrate an energy of which the entire universe was supposedly composed, and that he thought could cure human maladies like cancer and impotence. "When I told him, in concluding, that people considered me mad, his reply was 'I can believe that,' " Dr. Reich wrote in his journal.

The author Richard Gilman, in reviewing a book on Dr. Reich in The New York Times recently, wrote that "poor, nutty, deluded Reich quotes this proudly, as if Einstein were sympathizing with him."

Explaining the origin and contents of the entire universe is irresistibly attractive to armchair theorists in general, said Dr. Tereasa Brainerd, an astronomer at Boston University, whose research has been covered in newspapers. "They are always wrong, for the simple reason that the authors have not understood the basic physics that is involved," Dr. Brainerd said.

But Dr. Brainerd said she did occasionally respond to letters, especially if the writers were not simply asserting that all of astronomy was wrong (a common conceit). When she does respond, "it's always with the idea of free public education in mind," Dr. Brainerd said. Her approach is to try to correct a few fallacies and keep the writers interested in science.

A common theme is that their theories anticipated a discovery that has just been reported in the news, said Dr. Alexei Filippenko, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Filippenko has a thick sheaf of letters from people who believe they anticipated the discovery by him and other astronomers that the universe is filled with a strange energy that is boosting its expansion.

The discovery "confirms what I have theorized for over 20 years," declared a writer in Nashville, who appended a list of numbers and equations. "Congratulations. The attachment is my paper and proof that this is the case. Your findings are not a bizarre notion."

Wild theorizing is not limited to people with no science background, said Dr. Benjamin Bederson, a physicist at New York University. "Saddest of crackpot theories," said Dr. Bederson, "come from superannuated, formerly fine scientists who late in their careers get bored doing bread-and-butter stuff." A classic example, he said, was the renowned physicist Dr. Julian Schwinger, who in old age believed he had found a scientific explanation for cold fusion, a scheme for producing energy that was soon shown to have no basis in reality.

Oddly, scientists who lose their bearings in one topic are often perfectly sound in the rest of their work, said Dr. Virginia Trimble, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Irvine.

"Some of them are exceedingly nice persons if only you can keep them off their particular subject," Dr. Trimble said.

Cranks also turn up in less rarefied areas of research. Dr. Donald Moyer, a former physicist, who is now a patent agent in Chicago, said his most frightening experience was with a man who claimed that he had invented bulletproof paint. Sitting in Dr. Moyer's office and clutching a paper bag, the man said ominously that the paint was also resistant to intercontinental ballistic missiles and suggested that Dr. Moyer would want to arrange a test.

"Finally," Dr. Moyer said, "he reached into the paper bag and pulled out an 8-by-10 plaque with a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower."

To top off his pitch, the man explained that the wondrous paint was made from recycled garbage.

The fear that such people can inspire often leads to some nimble circumlocutions on the parts of legitimate scientists, Dr. Moyer said. Once, as he was discussing crackpot theorizing with a fellow physicist in his office, his colleague took out a file marked "public relations" that was filled with letters on off-the-wall theories. When Dr. Moyer asked why in the world the folder was so labeled, his colleague explained that the writers sometimes turned up in his office, "and they get really upset if you take out a folder marked 'crackpots.' "

The best strategy of all for dealing with cranks may be to tie them up with their own ideas, said Dr. Chu, the Nobel laureate. Riding the escalator to his next talk, Dr. Chu hesitated not at all when a reporter asked for advice on how to respond to a paranoid person who believed that the government was controlling his mind with invisible lasers, and who wanted to know how to escape them.

"Tell him to wear aluminum-foil hats," Dr. Chu said.