Science at the Abstract Edge

Was Einstein wrong? Do humans have ESP? Some of the most interesting research questions are far off the beaten track.

By Corey S. Powell|Thursday, April 05, 2012

Fringe science is a bit like abstract art: it looks easy to do, but it is very hard to do well.

Take the example of psychologist Daryl Bem, who has infuriated his colleagues by publishing an experiment that supports the existence of precognition: the ability to sense events that have not yet happened. A good number of self-styled psychics make this same claim, and some of them even invoke scientific-sounding explanations to support it. But Bem’s work stands apart because he has spent a lifetime designing rigorous experiments to measure human behavior, and he is highly trained in the ways in which people can, intentionally or not, fake their way through such tests. Bem’s psi research reminds me of the geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian—simple-looking canvases whose elegantly balanced compositions actually reflect decades of investigation into color and form.

In some ways, physicist Julian Barbour lives even further out on the scientific margin. He has shunned academia almost entirely, and his chosen area of study—attempting to overthrow Einstein’s theory of relativity—is one that routinely lures well-meaning amateur scientific sleuths out of their depths. Again, though, the details are all-important. Barbour began reading Einstein’s papers (in the original German, no less) while still a student and immersed himself in the positivist philosophy of Ernst Mach. Above all, he understands that any new theory of space and time must preserve all the descriptive power of relativity while addressing, in exacting mathematical precision, the inconsistencies between Einstein’s theory and the rules of quantum physics that cry out for another breakthrough. He brings to the endeavor the hard rigor that so many dabblers do not.

I find these kinds of rule-challenging researchers inherently interesting because of the stark way they illuminate the process of scientific progress. Is it just me? I am always eager to hear what DISCOVER readers think—what they would like to see more of in the magazine and what they wish we’d left on the cutting-room floor. So please let us know what you think of not only this issue but anything you see in DISCOVER magazine or on the Web site. 

Journalism, too, is a lot harder than it looks. It always benefits from more minds and more perspectives. I hope you will lend us yours.

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