Saturday, 2 July 2011


I don't know how prevalent they are in other fields, but physics seems to attract more than its fair share of crackpots. Either that, or I only notice because I'm doing physics. They are mostly harmless, but occasionally they write books and contaminate the minds of the unsuspecting public. (By the way, if you are a physicist or have somewhat of a physics background, check out the free chapter of that book. It's like a sort of physics slapstick comedy.)

I've had various experiences with crackpots over the years. On more than one occasion, ragged, disheveled looking people have wandered into the physics department desperate to talk to someone about their amazing theory that will surely solve some longstanding physics problem or solve the world's energy needs. In all cases, they have little to no physics background and a poor grasp of maths, and they are also very easy to spot from a distance.

I actually (hopefully) managed to discourage one such person. This guy said he had a background in surveying and complained about how current technology for imaging underground was not very good. It's based on blasting sound waves into the ground and then observing their reflections (they do something like this in Jurassic Park). He thought that a far superior method would be to use cosmic rays and that he just needed some help to get his idea off the ground.

Another sort of crackpot exists as well. This is your average person on the street who is not satisfied with (and nearly 100% of the time doesn't understand) a particular theory and comes up with their own. Of course, what they have is just an idea, not a theory as such. I really wouldn't care about this very much at all, but for some reason these people gravitate towards me in social situations. Here is an example of one such situation that took place at a party. I was sitting on the couch minding my own business, when a guy sat down next to me and started making conversation:

Guy: Hi, I'm Bob. How do you know [Party Host]?
Me: Hi. We are students in the same department.
Guy: Oh! So you do physics too!
Me: Yeah.
Guy: Okay, so I have this theory about the universe... I think it's way better than [Standard Accepted Explanation]. Gee, I really like physics, but I never understood maths.

I actually can't remember what his theory was, though I can assure you that it was 100% crackpot. I was in panic mode at that stage, trying to figure out how to politely extract myself from the conversation. Luckily, he got distracted by someone else and went away. Phew. Unfortunately, the next guy who sat next to me proceeded to do exactly the same thing upon hearing that I do physics. I made some excuse, got up and went home. Enough was enough.

I'm told that a similar phenomenon exists in psychology, where people have a driving need to tell psychologists their "theories" about human behaviour. I'm curious about other fields, even non-science fields. Does anyone else have any experiences or funny stories about crackpots?

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