All of the work that I’ve done with the IFF is a part of this overall life mission.
So you really feel that this is what you’re meant to be doing with your life right now, you’re in that zone, this is it?
I feel that the things I’m doing with the IFF are a culmination of a lifetime spent trying to pursue a different philosophy of science communication. I think the world needs a project like this and I’m thrilled to be doing it, but I’m struggling a bit with your question because I don’t feel that it’s the only thing I should be doing. Before I was doing the IFF, the major project in my life was writing books on the cultural history of physics. I’m actually towards the end of another book and I’ve been struggling with how to get that finished because for the past few years the IFF has taken up so much of my life. I don’t see the IFF as something that matters more than, say, my books. I’m lucky enough to have several aspects of my life that I really want to pursue. The struggle is to find the time to honour the other things too. I do feel very privileged to have so much going on that I actually love and feel passionate about.
Are you able to tell us what the book you’re writing is about?
Oh sure! This book is a follow-on from my first two books, though it’s taking a much more bizarre approach. I see it as the last in a trilogy on the cultural history of physics. This final one is probably going to be called Imagining the World and it’s about a man in a trailer park who has no training in science, but over the past 35 years he’s developed his own fully-articulated, alternative theory of physics. He publishes his own books and does amazing illustrations of his theories, he’s even done computer animations of his own account of the Big Bang and his own theory of subatomic particles.
So it’s based on a true story?
It’s funny, quite a few people ask me that question. He’s a real human being. His name is Jim Carter and he lives in a place called Enumclaw outside of Seattle. I think, when the book comes out, that there will be people who imagine that I’ve made it all up, but every word of it is true. When I first encountered Jim 12 years ago I was fascinated. I knew about this phenomenon. It’s the scientific equivalent of outsider art. Well-known physicists often receive manuscripts from these people touting alternatives to quantum mechanics, or their own ideas about the structure of matter, or the speed of light. Usually these manuscripts go straight from the mail room into the bin. As soon as I met Jim, I understood that he was an unusual case; he didn’t just have a single idea, he had a complete and totalised theory of the universe, everything from his own alternative explanation of the Big Bang and the Periodic Table, even his own theory of gravity.
I have a collection of these theories. I’ve got about 60 of them now on my bookshelf, some are full-on books, some are just articles, but I’ve never encountered one of these people who’s done it to the degree that Jim’s done it. At first when I met Jim, I thought he would be an interesting idea for a magazine article, but since then I’ve come to know him very well, and have been up to visit him many times. I think he’s the most remarkable human being I’ve ever known. My encounters with Jim have changed my life. He is, in part, what gave me the courage to start the IFF. I’ll never forget, one day I was with Jim, and he made an off-hand comment, “Yeah I’ve got an institute too.” It’s called the Absolute Motion Institute and it has a staff of one. I’d had this idea for a while that I wanted to have a new framework for doing science communication in interesting ways, and for about a year I thought I’d have do it under the auspices of a university. I wondered how on earth I was going to align myself with a major institution. Then I woke up one day, as if I’d had a dream, with Jim’s words ringing in my ears, “I can have an institute too.” I realised that in the age of the laser printer, when anyone can have a letterhead and a business card, anyone can have an institute too. It was Jim who gave me the courage to see that this was possible. If what you want to achieve is money and widespread recognition, then doing it on your own probably doesn’t make sense.
No, it might not be the quickest way there to do it on your own.
It’s certainly isn’t and it does present significant obstacles, but the thing is, if what you really want is to do the thing, then one of the lessons that Jim taught me is,