Got a new theory of the universe ?

After several decades working as a science writer and part-time academic, I’ve had many emails, letters, papers – and in one case an entire set of files – setting out new theories of the universe, proofs that Einstein was wrong, demonstrations that quantum theory is really obvious and similar claims.

They usually come with a covering note saying that no scientist is prepared to take the idea seriously, and wondering if I would be willing to help. And indeed I am – with the following advice.

I quite understand your frustration in never getting responses to what may well seem to be a simple and perfectly watertight argument proving Einstein was wrong etc. But the truth is that these days, most researchers (including me) are under appalling time pressure even to get their own work done.  As a result, they will only spend time reviewing ideas that are (a) of personal interest; (b) from colleagues, or (c) from the editors of journals asking them to “referee” a new research claim for possible publication. Chances are your work doesn’t fall into any of these categories, which isn’t a good start.

They might, nonetheless, be willing to cast an eye over something potentially interesting. But in areas of mathematics and fundamental physics, this is never, ever a claim based on appeal to “common sense arguments” or observations that are “obviously” true. This is because (sadly) both strategies have long been known to be unreliable in these fields.

Aristotle’s view of gravity leads to the perfectly commonsense prediction that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones – but it’s not true. The geocentric theory of the solar system was based on the “obvious” fact that the sun goes round the Earth – which we literally see happen every day, but now know to be an illusion. In mathematics, Euclid took as an axiom – that is, a statement so obviously correct it required no proof – that parallel lines only meet at infinity. The study of non-Euclidean geometry (eg spheres) by Gauss and others showed this not to be the case. Theories such as General Relativity make use of all these hard-won lessons about the unreliability of “common sense”, and many more.

It is for this reason that fundamental science relies so much (arguably in some case, too much) on mathematics for insight. The upshot is that your ideas won’t be taken remotely seriously until you are able to state them convincingly in mathematical language, and ideally make some testable predictions.

Does all this mean your idea is doomed never to get the consideration it deserves ? Not necessarily. It is possible to get to grips with the necessary theoretical background and mathematics, and it is possible for “outsiders” to get their ideas published in serious journals. It’s not easy, but it can and has been done.

Finally, please do not think you are being persecuted for being an “outsider”, “just a lay person” etc. As this Physics World article shows, it doesn’t make much difference even if one is a physicist, a Fellow of the Royal Society or even a Nobel Prizewinning theorist. Getting radical ideas taken seriously, let alone accepted, has always been, and will always be, extremely difficult. 

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