Crackpotness Orthogonality

I just recently read Motl's post on a particularly prolific crackpot, who solved all of the known problems in physics, and then some more. That reminded me of an old story, a true one, which teaches us that you can be a crackpot in many orthogonal ways (that is, in mutually independent ways).

Quite a few years ago, a colleague of mine at the Technion, in Haifa, received a letter from a crackpot. As crackpot letters usually are, this one offered to solve many of the open problems in physics. As fate would have it, a second crackpot letter arrived not long after. My colleague had an ingenious idea. Instead of wasting time on these crackpots, why not have them waste their own time! He wrote to the second crackpot that he cannot help him, however, he knows of someone who is interested in the same topics. Not too long after, he received a call from the first crackpot, asking why he refereed to his this guy who was obviously a crackpot, since he clearly didn't know right from wrong, that is, genius from wacky.

What is the moral you ask? Well, crackpots cannot recognize their own crackpotness, but they can certainly recognize other crackpots as such. Clearly, there are many different orthogonal ways of being a crackpot. You may not recognize that someone who is abducted by aliens is in fact a crackpot if you were abducted yourself! But you would recognize a false Messiah or someone who just found Einstein's theory to be hopelessly wrong as clear crackpots.

Talking about different types of crackpots, it is interesting that here in Jerusalem, I had the "opportunity" to witness crackpots which are quite different than the typical university roaming crackpots. Here is Jerusalem, many of the crackpots are affected by the Jerusalem syndrome. As such, their supposed theory of everything often has a religious twist to it. (Incidentally, we do get our own share of "normal" crackpots, if you can call them normal!)

During my 3 years at Caltech for example, I didn't see any religiously motivated crackpot, just many "normal" ones. One of them, who lasted long on campus, was James Carter, nope, not the peanut farmer. When this retired looking guy first showed up in Caltech, in winter, he had a trench coat. Fair enough. However, as summer grew closer, the coat was always on (which made you wonder perhaps he just came from a dark park... actually, he came from San Francisco where you do wear trench coats all year round). This is indicative of another typical problem, that at least some crackpots have. They are not only disconnected from scientific reality, they are disconnected from life and society in general. James Carter came to Caltech to publicize his great idea of how to cure AIDS with gravitational waves. A very original idea indeed. Too bad it doesn't work. He used to stare at the group's interaction room blackboard for hours. Once, I was told, he added a factor of two to one of the scribbled equations. I also remember him listening to more than one physics colloquium. Once, when the life-on-mars meteorite was discovered, during the whole lecture he nodded his head with disapproval. I guess he knew better.

Note that not all those who are disconnected from society are actually crackpots. In fact, some can appear at first sight to be clear crackpot cases, where in fact they are not at all. No example for this is more vivid than the case of Edward E. Simmons Jr.

Ed Simmons (aka "the tutu man") didn't start as a crackpot, and as crazy as he was, he probably never was. He was an honest to god scientist, at least at some point, and a good one in fact. He invented the strain gauge which was very important for the WWII aircraft industry (he later had legal problems with Caltech because of that). Irrespective of how good a scientist or engineer he was, he was certifiably crazy. In his eulogy it was said: "He didn’t just think outside the box, he was outside the box.”

The guy used to walk around with some medieval looking tutu. He lived in an old Volvo station-wagon filled with used cans and other garbage (parked on my way home from Caltech) and used to roam the paths of Caltech at odd hours. Occasionally he would attend a lecture. I'll never forget the bewildered facial expression of a visiting post-doc who gave a seminar. I would too if a tutu'ed man would appear in a seminar I gave. Similarly, my dear wife was shocked when she first saw him walking in Millikan Library one midnight. I would imagine he simply lost all contact with reality. A trait he has in common with many real crackpots.

Anyway, that's about all I have to say on crackpots. They waste your time (and now I wasted some of yours ;-)) but they certainly make life more colorful. Oh, and I am not responsible for the content of the ads below... any page which includes "Einstein" and "Abducted by Aliens" in it, is quite certain to fetch strange ads!


Comments (4)

  • anon

    I was just roaming your blog, which is very interesting and funny.
    I wanted to comment on several points, but I think that I will concentrate on 2 in my questions here.
    1) Regarding bone age: I saw this movie on TV about bone age (this silly and whiny movie about the short boys) and if I got it right bone age is not that good of a measurement of development. I mean, the standard divination (at least from what I could understand from the tables they briefly showed in the movie) is very big. So why do they give such large value to it?
    2) Second question is regarding your opening post, about interesting questions, this is a gross question which i found interesting. When cockroaches die what is the mechanism that makes them turn on their back? I mean they are about to die and don't have enough power to live so how come in their last breath they turn around?
    Any way from my name (and my stupid questions) you should know how I am. (The main hints are my stupid questions and my bad English).
    Shana Tova

    Sep 20, 2006
  • anon

    Yes, as far as I saw, bone age is not too accurate, but I don't know whether there is anything more accurate other than looking at the birth certificate. (b) Cockroaches: Yes, Interesting question! I found an answer here. perhaps it is has some truth to it. (c) Yes, I know who you are. I just don't know the current color of your fingernails ;-) -Nir

    Dec 11, 2007
  • anon
    John A (not verified)

    Crackpots are not at all rare. They even have a special place on the Internet entirely devoted to them.

    It's called Usenet.

    Feb 09, 2007
  • anon

    With 5.2 TB of daily volume (As of late Jan 07), Usenet is bound to have its share of crackpots, but even a few sane people too.

    Feb 09, 2007