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Outsider Physics 

The art of science

Wednesday, May 8 2002

Weekly readers who think my paragraph-long sentences and adjectival SigAlerts make for impenetrable prose would do well to log on to one of my favorite Web sites, www.crank.net, and browse the breathtaking array of techno-glossolalia and crypto-paranoiac manifestoes out there. Personally, I keep an eye peeled for those rated “crankiest” or “illucid,” but we each have our own tolerance level for gibberish.

My patience for unnecessary neologisms and garbled logic is quite high -- I even dig Derrida! But I suppose I‘m drawn to the more over-the-top crackpot material because the more plausible stuff goes over the top of my head. When someone is channeling the technology of the Grays, or spikes his prose with arbitrary capital letters and multiple exclamation points, you don’t have to be an expert to decide if its impenetrability is a result of the Aesthetics of Paranoia1 or simply the same threshold of mathematical illiteracy that makes science a constantly mediated fiction for most of us. Face it: Unless you think in equations, Schrodinger‘s cat is just a good story. Man, woman, child -- all are up against the Wall of Science!

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A whole industry of intercessionary scribes has arisen to tell the stories of science and, whether they admit it or not, lend their spin to them. Among the most excellent of this guild is Margaret Wertheim, whose thoughtful books Pythagoras’ Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (as well as occasional writing for the L.A. Weekly and other publications) are models of uncondescending lay-intellectual journalism, chock-full of jargon-free explanations and original insights -- anything but illucid. One of the subtexts of Wertheim‘s scholarship has been the sorting out of science history according to the influence of authoritarian social conventions, so it isn’t surprising that her interest would recently turn toward the realm of the merely “cranky” outsider physics of James Carter.

“Lithium Legs and Apocalyptic Photons: The Imaginative World of James Carter” is the exhibition Wertheim has guest-curated for the Santa Monica Museum of Art. This show is most fully appreciated on the following three levels:

a) The UNDENIABLE VISUAL APPEAL!!! of Carter‘s diagrams, models and charts detailing his theory of the “circlon” structure of atomic particles, his revised periodic table of the elements, the Great Chain Bifurcation in which the matter of the universe was formed, and his analyses of cloud formation as “the oldest and most ubiquitous of the dark matter enigmas” -- not to mention the Carter Lift Bags for underwater salvage strewn through the exhibition space, and the absorbing documentary It’s Jim‘s World (by Wertheim and spouse-thing Cameron Allan) detailing Carter’s other pursuits as an abalone diver, prospector, trailer-park manager and caveman.

b) The PROBLEMATIC EXHIBITION DESIGN!!! which, while including some nice touches -- the series of display cases arranged to mimic Carter‘s rectilinear molecular visualizations, the mural-size blowup of one of Carter’s scribbled notes, his giant smoke-ring generator for observation of circlon phenomena on a human scale -- would have benefited from a more soberly institutional presentation, more dynamic lighting and a more theatrical arrangement of the visual material. Nevertheless, its function as a variation on Natural History display vernacular, buttressed by a typically scintillating catalog essay by Wertheim, compensates substantially.

c) As a SITE OF CONFRONTATION!!! with the authoritarianism that makes most of us accept the authenticity of conventionally ordained pundits over independent visionaries, even if we can‘t tell string theory from a hole in the ground. As responsible consumers of information, we are behooved to shed the emperor’s new clothes and admit our limitations. And to stand up for our own bad taste. [In fact, the parallels between the scientific and art-world establishments are striking -- both are riddled with nepotism, prejudice and authoritarianism. Both continue regardless, because scientific inquiry and art making are activities in which humans persist under any circumstances.] It is in this role, as a provocative exploration of our society‘s subtle (and not so subtle) mechanics of persuasion, of the protocol by which meaning is attributed to a cultural event, that the exhibit is most -- um . . . persuasive and meaningful.

As for the plausibility of the physics, you got me. Carter’s theories are internally coherent, and he can certainly design a lift bag better than I ever could. This last point may seem trivial, but it‘s just such circumstantial evidence that lends popular credence to the similarly embattled visionary scientific theories of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s idea of an underlying structure to reality based on the form of the tetrahedron, or four-sided pyramid, is as hard to assess by the math alone (at least for me -- I‘ve known a couple of Ph.D.s in computer science who were avowed Bucky-philes) as Carter’s Apocalyptic Photons. But for most of the public, the most convincing external ratification of Fuller‘s world-view is the number of patented inventions (25, including the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion bathroom unit) that emerged from it.

Fuller’s cultural standing as a great scientist depended, perversely, on the support of East Coast avant-garde artists and intellectuals -- first in the Greenwich Village milieu of the ‘30s and later at Black Mountain College, where he had a quixotic influence on John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and them. Bucky’s star rose alongside theirs, and his willingness to apply his cosmic engineering theory to (and make public pronouncements on) any aspect of culture made him a natural for both the nascent soundbite-bound media and the holistic, Other-embracing counterculture of the ‘60s. Fuller realized early on what James Carter is now experiencing -- that it’s more productive to cultivate the collateral support of artists and writers than to try to wear down the stonewalling academic scientific establishment. Fuller was already in solid enough with the Big Apple Swells by 1959 that the sculpture garden of MOMA was handed over to a display of his large-scale models.

By 1981, Fuller was enough of a cultural archetype to collaborate on a series of exquisite screen prints titled “Inventions: Twelve Around One,” celebrating a baker‘s dozen of patents from his long career. Currently on view for the first time in L.A. at Gallery 2211_Solway Jones, the series features the aforementioned dome and crapper, as well as Fuller’s 1938 three-wheeled Dymaxion Car, the famous Wichita house of 1946 and the lift bag--related floating city Submarisle of 1959. Each print consists of the original patent-application diagrams on Mylar, superimposed over a photograph of the most completed version of the invention. The modular geometry and relentless symmetry of Fuller‘s designs guarantee their optical charm, and the Rauschenberg-like layering gains new dimension from the direct correlation between the diagrammatic overlay and its eventual realization.

Ironically, Fuller’s acceptance as a popular-culture figure ultimately gives rise to the same difficulties as Carter‘s anonymity -- permission is granted for the lay viewer to throw up his or her hands and proclaim, “I dunno!” While there is nothing wrong with enjoying Fuller’s or Carter‘s work on a strictly aesthetic level, it is a matter of some urgency (as pointed out so tartly by Alan Sokal’s prank physics paper for Social Text) to excavate some burrows in the no man‘s land that has sprung up between how we make use of our senses and how we make sense of the world. Exhibits like “Lithium Legs” and “Twelve Around One,” which tweak our awareness of these gray areas between the citadel of science and the rest of Western culture, constitute a tunnel in the right direction.

1See my essay “The Aesthetics of Paranoia: On the 20th Anniversary of Jonestown” in The Conscious Reader, Shrodes & Finestone, eds. (Longman, 2000).

  • The art of science

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