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Notes from Another Universe

Inside the X-files at the University of California at Berkeley, the line between theory and fantasy, science and supposition, starts to dissolve. The authors of these dissertations are obsessed—and scientists are nearly as obsessed with them

By Jennifer Kahn and Jim Goldberg
Apr 1, 2002 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:40 AM


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Eleven years ago Eugene Sittampalam was sitting in a hotel room on the Libyan coast when he stumbled, as if by fate, on the unified field theory of physics. "I was on an engineering project at the time, with hardly any social life," he says. "I would retire to my room after dinner. I would switch on the radio, relax at my table, and start doodling." The problem that occupied him has stumped physicists from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking: How to join together the profound yet disparate insights of general relativity and quantum theory. But Sittampalam's doodling, apparently, drew connections that the rest had missed. "One thing led to another," he says, "and before the evening was over, I had the inverse square law of gravity derived—for the first time ever—from first principles!"

Sittampalam has no advanced degrees in physics. His theory is girded by mathematics no more complicated than high school algebra. Still, his claims are modest compared with those of other "maverick theorists," or cranks, as most scientists call them. At the American Astronomical Society meeting in 1999, a freelance astronomer argued strenuously that connecting certain pulsars across the night sky made an arrow that pointed directly to a vast alien communications network. A few years before, at Dartmouth, a dishwasher swamped the Internet newsgroups with his descriptions of the universe as a giant plutonium atom. The man, who identified himself as Archimedes Plutonium, wrote songs praising this atom universe and also provided stock tips. When he appeared on campus, it was in a parka covered with equations like a necromancer's robe.

Letters from crank theorists—often handwritten or manually typed, exhaustively diagrammed, up to a hundred pages long—have inundated university science departments for years. Neel Shearer, the graduate assistant who filters physicist Stephen Hawking's e-mail, says that Hawking receives "hundreds of letters a month, at least, mostly theories about how the moon doesn't rotate, why gravity doesn't exist, how to go faster than the speed of light."

Judging from the reams of odd theories sent daily to science journals, universities, and researchers, science cranks are more prolific than ever. This is true despite a discouraging silence on the part of the recipients. The author of one atmosphere-based theory of gravity estimates that he has mailed 5,000 copies of his work to physicists over the past 15 years but received just two replies. Presentation is part of the problem. "GENTLEMEN ARE YOU INTERESTED IN SEPARATING VALUABLE CHEMICAL COMPOUNDS FROM THE SUNSHINE RAY?" demands one impatient correspondent. Crank papers are so consistent in their tics that they're sometimes hung on physics department bulletin boards and given ratings—with points awarded for bold type, multiple exclamation marks, and comparison of self to Newton, Einstein, or God. But a few, like Sittampalam's, are more difficult to dismiss.

Sittampalam holds a bachelor of science degree from the University of Ceylon and has spent 20 years consulting for a number of prominent global engineering firms. His 85-page treatise is formatted with flawless professionalism, and he has no history of psychological disorders. Yet since his "breakthrough" in Libya, Sittampalam has all but sidetracked his career in pursuit of his theory. He has repeatedly sent his treatise to universities, paid to self-publish the work in paperback, and lost "a small fortune in salary" by his own estimation. Seven years ago he even offered a $25,000 reward to any physicist who could refute his theory and, as he puts it, "slap me out of this obsession." So far, no one has come up with a sufficient rebuttal.

Such single-minded absorption is part of the mythology of science. It's no wonder, then, that scientists are nearly as fascinated by cranks as cranks are by science. "It's unnerving," says Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. "It shows how easy it is to slip from healthy, even necessary, conviction into certainty and delusion. Plus, you realize that you don't always know which camp you're in." There's the rub. Science owes a good part of its success to its capacity to contend with doubt—to engage it, respond to it, and transform itself in the encounter. Yet there's rarely a point at which a good idea becomes clearly, incontestably a bad idea. Neurologist Stanley Prusiner spent 15 years arguing that a misfolded protein called a prion caused the brain decay associated with scrapie and mad cow disease. Researchers snickered at him. Evidence slowly accumulated in his favor, and in 1997 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. "It's like a ball on top of a saddle," Marcy says. "You can't listen too closely to the establishment or you'll never be creative. But if you don't listen enough, you fall over the edge."

I first came across Sittampalam's theory in the Berkeley physics department. There, for the past 20-odd years, the secretaries have diligently compiled what they call the X-files: the mother lode of crankiana. Kept in a three-foot-wide cabinet, the files contain hundreds of submissions, including one man's musical CD about thermodynamics and another's explanation of relativity and quantum mechanics spelled out on six postcards. Elsewhere on campus, researchers maintain what amount to branch libraries of the X-files. "I have an entire shelf of crank mail," MacArthur-winning physicist Rich Muller told me. "My favorite is a book written by a crank that includes all the letters she received from scientists."

Muller's office at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory sits several hundred feet above the city, in a stolid cement building edged by eucalyptus trees. The lab's newly heightened security was in force, and I was allowed through the gate only after a lab employee turned up to vouch for my good intentions. When I arrived, Muller had everything laid out, fat folders of letters and textbooks stacked across half of a colleague's desk. "There was a poster of the universe," he mumbled, peering up at the room's highest shelf. "It was beautiful. I put it someplace special. Now I don't know where it is."

Superficially, Muller is a bit cranky himself. His hair is thin but mussed, and his office is a cave of overstuffed folders and yellowing articles tacked to a corkboard. He is the author, among other things, of the controversial Nemesis theory, which argues that a second sun caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and a novel that explains some biblical miracles as clever but scientifically consistent sleight of hand. Muller corresponds with cranks and has thought enough about them to sort them into a fairly elaborate taxonomy. "The range . . . is quite broad," he says. At the top of his hierarchy are the merely misguided: retired engineers who have strayed from load-and-strain calculations into surmises about relativity. The bottom of the stack is hairier: the Mullerian estate of the super-crank. Some super-cranks are harmlessly delusional, others dangerously paranoid, but none are very good at listening—a trait that drives Muller bats. "You take the time to explain the mistake in their argument, and they just ignore the explanation," he says bitterly. "They don't realize how much time scientists spend coming up with ideas and rejecting them."

Physicist Rich Muller tries to save every crank missive he receives. Other scientists find the letters both frustrating and fascinating: "No one ever compares himself to a minor genius. They're all Copernicus or Schrödinger."

Cranks, of course, see it differently. In their view they are Davids fighting a Goliath. Sometimes their foes may be theorists who have gone too far ("Deception, horn-swoggling . . . Who are you fooling?" demands an opponent of string theory). Other times they are scientists—overeducated, institutionalized, hidebound—who don't dare go far enough.

This confusion over fundamental purpose is understandable, given that modern physics manages to seem at once simple and profoundly puzzling. Astronomers have only recently determined that a mysterious "dark energy" is forcing the universe apart, overwhelming the equally mysterious "dark matter" that seemed to be holding it together. Even gravity, faithful shepherd of falling rocks and fly balls, has recently gone to pieces: At small distances, it may not be constant at all. "Some of the ideas are incredibly counterintuitive," says Nima Arkani-Hamed, a Harvard physicist who specializes in theoretical particle physics. "And they're just getting more bizarre."

Arkani-Hamed himself believes that space contains seven extra dimensions we can't see because they're rolled up like very small window shades. His mannerisms, too, might seem suspect in someone with less impressive credentials. He talks faster than I can take notes, a kind of super-revved speech that still seems to fall frustratingly short of the speed of thought. "Certain traits of personality and character are . . . close," he admits. "The obsessive tendencies, the compulsion, the restlessness. It's not the same, but there's a resemblance." Then he adds, dryly: "A lot of scientists have traits that would be bizarre if not channeled into science. I know that's part of why cranks interest me."

After several days of reading the X-files, I felt as if I were attending school in a parallel universe. "It is imperative that we begin burning water as fuel!" one author urged. Others were more puzzling. A note written on a ripped sheet of notebook paper said only, "I contend the holes on the right side of these pants are not explainable by contemporary science." A few submissions aped the style of scholarly papers, including credentials: An outline for "Symmetrical Energy Structures in a Megadimensional Cosmology," for instance, came from the director of the Alpha Omega Research Foundation in Palm Beach, Florida. But most favored a more urgent style. Arguments crescendoed to uppercase type. Words, boxed and colored, squeezed together on the page like castaways on a homemade raft.

At times the grandiloquence was so ingenuous it was hard to hold much of a grudge. "Readers, stretch your imagination to the very limits!" the inventor of Wavetron theory implored. "Together we will batter back the barbarous hordes!" The boldface words in another paper, taken together, read nearly like verse: "The eye is low / Negative ground / Electricity compressed, dead calm, displacing space / No one knows the cause / displacing . . . / repelling . . . / Well I do." But not every crank is so poetic nor so benign. Arkani-Hamed described one author whose e-mails had become increasingly virulent. Another physicist refused to be quoted by name in this article, replying tersely: "There is no guarantee that all cranks are harmless." Still another described his feelings about cranks as "Neutral. With a touch of fear."

One case in particular has echoed down the years with the force of a small-town murder. In 1952 a man named Bayard Peakes turned up at the office of the American Physical Society at Columbia University with a gun. Peakes was frustrated at the society's rejection of his pamphlet, "So You Love Physics." Unable to find any physicists at the society's office, he shot and killed a secretary instead. (Just months before, ironically, the society had changed its policy to open its annual meetings to public speakers and accept all scientific abstracts—including another by Peakes that aimed to prove that the electron doesn't exist.)

The Peakes case was unique in degree but not in kind. Scientists have been heckled, cursed, and harassed at work (one crank faxed love letters to a department chair and forged the signature of another scientist at the bottom). A few have even had cranks turn up at their homes.

It was hard not to have these cases in mind when I began contacting writers from the X-files, using the information that came with some of the papers. For the most part the authors were elusive. Phones had been disconnected, e-mail addresses bounced. The few who did answer were single-minded. One retired commercial diver answered all my questions with an uninterruptible monologue on gravity (it pushes rather than pulls, he said). An elderly man in southern California called back half a dozen times, each time hinting at his latest discovery.

"With psychosis, there's a kind of pressure to push it out," John MacGregor, an expert in the "outsider art" produced by mental patients, told me. "Sometimes the manic-depressives don't even use periods. They don't want to stop writing!" The trouble starts when such zeal is spiked with paranoia. "Schizophrenics have a tremendous desire to prove that they're sane," MacGregor said. "It could be that they've adopted science in order to prove just how rational and intelligent they are." He paused. "If a paranoid schizophrenic decides that certain rays are emanating from the physics department, it could be dangerous. These are the people who might come in and shoot it up."

Compared with the people MacGregor described—even compared with some of the physicists I interviewed—Sittampalam was charming. On the phone from his home in Sri Lanka, he proved candid but not overbearing, with crisp, British-inflected English pleasantly free of run-on tendencies. He answered questions about his family (he has five brothers and has never married) and chatted easily about his current job at ElectroFlow, a Missouri-based start-up that helps companies optimize their power consumption. He maintained that his physics theories were quite accessible; indeed, he hoped to see them introduced at the high school level.

Engineer Eugene Sittampalam has offered $25,000 to any physicist who can refute his unified field theory. "I found myself getting really angry," one cosmologist said after reading the paper. "It must have hit some real insecurity."

I liked Sittampalam enough to inveigle a physicist friend to read Sittampalam's paper, with the promise that he remain anonymous. I was secretly hoping the paper would have some merit, or if not, that it would contain a clear error: one that, recognized, would set Sittampalam free from his compulsion. But when my friend got back to me, the news was bad. "As I read this, I kept thinking: 'How hard can it be to prove that this paper is incontrovertibly wrong?'" he said. "But it is hard. Not because his ideas are right. They're not. But because he's created a self-consistent system of arguments."

Self-consistency is not in itself a valuable trait—the theory that aliens created Earth and continue to control its evolution is a self-consistent system—but it can make things hard to refute. "I'd love to find just one equation in here and say, 'We have observations proving that's not correct,'" the physicist said. "But there's no mathematical progression. He starts with some very basic equations from classical mechanics. He mixes, stirs, spends some time hypothesizing in a very general way about physics, and out pops another familiar equation:


But really, he's just waved his hands. He could never have gotten to that next equation if he didn't already know what it was—and he knew what it was only because other people had figured it out for him using the traditional framework of physics."

Reading Sittampalam's paper feels a bit like being in a hedge maze: Just when you think you're heading toward some grand, central idea—an explanation of the cosmological redshift, for instance—the discussion loops away for another, more distant destination. There is the matter of Earth, for example. Sittampalam claims that his theory is the only way to explain why Earth hasn't lost enough energy over the years to spiral into the sun. But a physicist who saw the paper wrote in to note that that's exactly what will happen—just billions of years from now. Sittampalam acknowledged that mistake but attributed it to a typo. He had mistakenly left the words "under perturbation" out of his hypothesis, he said. Revised, his theory now explained why Earth, subject to the gravitational pull of the rest of the planets, has never wandered out of its orbit.

"First, he's talking about gravitational radiation, which is a real but minute effect; now he's talking about the solar system being sensitive to small changes," the physicist said. "It's true that if you moved the Earth a little bit today, its position and velocity in a month would become quite different. But that doesn't mean the shape of the current orbit is going to fall apart. We have simulations showing just the opposite, actually: that the solar system is stable over an incredibly long timescale. But that's what I mean. Every error you find, he's just going to change the subject. It's never ending."

The truth, dispiriting as it may seem, is that cranks are pretty much never right. "We'd love it if one of these guys were right," Arkani-Hamed says. "A revolutionary idea that works—great!" But real science tends to advance by increments rather than by revolutions. The life of working scientists is long on tedium and short on glory. They write grants, sit on committees, do paperwork. There is pressure to play it safe and be competitive. Cranks, by contrast, are free agents. With no career to lose and no scientific framework to restrict them, they can publish at their own pace and dare to shoot for the moon.

Crank letters are so predictable in their grandiloquence that some physicists even rank them on a sliding scale. "There's something beautiful about the language," astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter says. Perlmutter tries to at least skim all the mail he receives. "It may be nonsensical, but often it's very evocative."

All of which may explain why most cranks aren't scientists and presumably wouldn't want to be. It may also explain why some scientists, when they talk about cranks, evince something close to envy. "There's curiosity, excitement, a kind of purity of purpose," Geoff Marcy says. Unlike conspiracy theorists, science cranks inhabit a happy universe: one that's accessible to those who plumb it ("Dear universal adventurer!" one postcard about quantum gravity begins). To read their ideas is a vicarious thrill, Arkani-Hamed admits, "but eventually you go back to what you were doing. In the end, the thing that makes science so amazing is that it works."

As for Sittampalam, he suspects that the poor reception for his work is largely a political matter. "I can easily answer all the critical points he raises," he replied, when I forwarded the physicist's critique. "But will he be convinced?" In the preface to his thesis, Sittampalam quotes Sir Martin Rees, a renowned astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal at Cambridge University. "Generally, researchers don't shoot directly for a grand goal," Rees writes. "Unless they are geniuses (or cranks) they focus on problems that seem timely or tractable." When I asked Sittampalam which he is, genius or crank, he was surprisingly equivocal. "Perhaps I'm a crank, but that's left for history," he said. "I have no regrets. When your work is for the future, by necessity you are not understood in your own days."

In the meantime, he can take comfort from the case of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In 1913 Ramanujan was a clerk at Madras Port Trust—"a short uncouth figure," in the words of one contemporary, "stout, unshaven, not over clean, with one conspicuous feature: shining eyes." Although largely self-taught in mathematics, Ramanujan had the audacity to mail 120 of his theorems to the British mathematician Godfrey Hardy at Cambridge University. Hardy dismissed the pages as gibberish at first, only to find, upon careful consideration, that some of the theorems were truly revelatory. Five years later Ramanujan was elected to the Royal Society of London.

News and anecdotes about science cranks, plus links to cranks' Web sites and a crank o' the day: www.crank.net.

Read Eugene Sittampalam's "Theory of Everything" on his personal Web site: www.eugenesittampalam.com.

A short biography of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan: www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Ramanujan.html.

Information about Stanley Prusiner and his work: www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates/1997/index.html.

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