Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Simo the Crank

This quote is from Emanuel Derman's My Life as a Quant

When I was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1970s, physics was the great attractor for the aspiring scientists of the world. Bearing witness to this was the large box of documents kept near the entrance to the physics deparment library. We referred to it as the "crank file." The box contained the unsolicited typewritten letters, manuscripts, and appeals that poured steadily into the mailbox of the department's chairman. Eccentric though the documents were, they made fascinating reading. There were eager speculations on the nature of space and time, elaborately detailed papers refuting relativity and qunatum mechanics, grandiose claims to have unified them, and farfetched meditations that combined physics with more metaphysical topics. I remember one note that tried to deduce the existence of God from the approximate equality of the solid angled subtended by the sun and the moon when observed from the earth, a remarkable circumstance without which there would be no solar eclipse.

None of these papers had much chance of getting past a journal referee. Few of the writers had much hope of even getting into graduate school. They may not have wanted to. The letters were mostly a cri de caeur from isolated and solitary physicist manques all over the world.

Most of my classmates laughed at the naivete of the letter writers, but as I skimmed through the crank file I found it hard to feel superior. Instead, peering into the box of manuscripts, I always saw my pale reflection. Out there, beyond academia and industry, were people like us, similarly in thrall of the same sense of mystery and power that lay behind the attempts to understand and master the universe with only imagination and symbols. ...

Old madness took a grip of me for 2 months. But this dark side needs to be processed somehow, merely denying it as in 2009 is not the right answer.

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