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BPSDBA fellow named Terry Witt has been advertising his self-published book, Our Undiscovered Universe, in places like Discover magazine and Scientific American. Unfortunately, the ad pages aren’t exactly peer-reviewed, or even cross-checked with a nearby grad student; being businesses, magazines naturally care about revenue. Upon examination, Our Undiscovered Universe turns out to be brimming over with crank physics and general nonsense. Ben Monreal, who was one of the intimidatingly smart people in the lab where I did my undergrad thesis, has weighed Witt’s “Null Physics” and found it wanting; his review of Our Undiscovered Universe is quite a good read.

Witt’s book starts with pseudomathematics before moving on to pseudophysics. As Ben explains,

Chapter 1 is where Witt lays out a series of “proofs” derived from what he calls the “Null Axiom”. That axiom is: “Existence sums to nonexistence” (pg. 28)—something that Witt calls self-evident after a page of invalid set theory. The central mistake, if I had to identify one, is the claim that “X does not exist” is the same as “everything except X exists”. This is utter baloney, whether in formal logic or in set theory or in daily experience.

Actually, as the book unfolds, Witt doesn’t appear to use this dead-in-the-water non-axiom for anything. He does, however, pile on more pseudomathematics:

Chapter 3 contains such gems as Theorem 3.1: “The Existence of Any Half of the Universe is Equal to the Nonexistence of the Other Half” (pg. 66) and Theorem 3.9: “The Time Required for Light to Traverse the Universe is Eternity, infinity/c” (pg. 72). I am not making this up. Witt throws around “infinity” as though it were an ordinary real number; he multiplies and divides by it, etc., with normal algebraic cancellation. This is complete nonsense; there are two centuries of mathematical thought figuring out the mathematical properties of infinity, and Witt’s approach is valid in exactly none of them. (Witt later explained on his online forum—currently disabled—that he’s reinvented all of the mathematics associated with “infinity”. His reasoning, if that’s what you call it, was that his new definition jibed with a grand idea about math being dependent on nature; it was an argument from incredulity.)

When Witt does finally get around to physics, five chapters into the book, he doesn’t do any better.

Witt’s entire conception of modern atomic physics is that it involves “probability clouds” designed to resolve the Rutherford catastrophe. That’s the version I learned when I was in middle school—Witt writes as though everyone else learned that too, accepted it as unthinking gospel, and built a religion around it. Did he ever notice the thousands of studies, both in physics and in philosophy of physics, discussing the plausibility or implausibility of quantum mechanics and alternatives to it? Did he ever notice that the Argument from Incredulity is not considered sound scientific practice (see, for example, its other conclusions: geocentrism, Intelligent Design creationism, opposition to plate teconics)? Apparently not—Witt must think that his own work brushes all past experience under the rug. This is, sadly, the familiar crackpot standard.

Oddly enough, I can think of at least one self-proclaimed revolutionary (also a tireless self-promoter) who hadn’t even made it through that middle-school lesson about “probability clouds.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite absurdity amongst all the ones which Witt manages to deliver. I rather liked how his “Null Physics” forbids hydrogen atoms from emitting light in the infrared, optical and ultraviolet spectra. On the other hand, declaring that energy has the units of time × distance2 is also pretty classy; it’s reminiscent of the Autodynamics guy claiming that [tex]E = mc^3[/tex]. And the chain of successive arbitrary handwaves in which he indulges to “explain” the cosmic microwave background is a downright tour de force of fractured-ceramic thinking.

In summary, “Null Physics” has, aptly, a content value of exactly null.


    • Sili
    • Posted Monday, 11 August 2008 at 16:10 pm
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    Well, I guess that’s one way of solving the problem of just what the Fresnel time actually is.

  1. Holy cow!

    The central mistake, if I had to identify one, is the claim that “X does not exist” is the same as “everything except X exists”.

    Yeah, that one’s definitely my favorite absurdity. I wonder if this means that since destitute nicole doesn’t exist, all other nicole’s must, including billionaire nicole, and if so how I would get in touch with her.

    • Green Eagle
    • Posted Monday, 11 August 2008 at 20:01 pm
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    Thanks for the guidance to Mr. Monreal’s review. It was a treat. I particularly liked the part about “the claim that “X does not exist” is the same as “everything except X exists”.”

    I guess, then, the claim that unicorns don’t exist proves that hippogriffs and satyrs do. What a unique discovery, which I believe will be of tremendous benefit to me in my future life. For example, the obvious fact that honest Republicans don’t exist means that I can expect to return home tonight to find a few billion dollars in gold doubloons in my bedroom. I can’t wait.

    • Anthony
    • Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 23:35 pm
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    Cornell’s Ask an Astronomer service has gotten at least one question about it. And there have also been ads in Facebook. This guy sure knows how to advertise.

  2. And, you know, that money could have been donated to schools. (A million bucks is a hundred thousand radiometers, give or take.)

    • Anthony
    • Posted Thursday, 14 August 2008 at 00:43 am
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    Or a bunch of spinthariscopes

  3. I appreciate seeing your article. I’ve been writing about this on my site as well. I’ve written to several magazines with my objections to their tacit endorsement of a rich man’s vain approach at self-promotion of this pseudoscientific indulgence.

  4. Dr. Monreal really deserves the credit; I just blogified his review.

    I despair of getting magazines to change their policies — until they see a clear financial incentive to clean up their act, what can we really expect?

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  1. [...] Modern snake oil, more of what’s coming. More stupid ideas about physics is highlighted on Science after Sunclipse. Journals run the adds and the book is full of woo. Is this more of what will come, the blending of [...]

  2. By Update: Null Physics on 26 Aug 2008 at 8:00 pm

    [...] It seems that Blake Stacey agrees with me. He basically rips Terry Witt a new one, and links to a wonderfully scathing review of the book, Our Undiscovered Universe. [Read his article here.] [...]