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Cranks, Academics & Practitioners

When I was a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1970s, physics (rather than genomics or IPOs) was the strange attractor for the aspiring scientists of the world. Bearing witness to this was the large folder of documents near the entrance to the physics department library. We referred to it as the ‘crank file’.

The folder contained the unsolicited typewritten letters, manuscripts and appeals that poured steadily into the mailbox of the department’s chairman. Eccentric though the documents were, they made fascinating reading. There were eager speculations on the nature of space and time, elaborately detailed and yet half-digested papers refuting relativity or quantum mechanics, equally undigested ones claiming to unify the two fields, and far-fetched meditations that combined physics with more metaphysical topics. I remember one note that tried to deduce the existence of God from the approximate equality of the solid angles subtended by the sun and the moon when observed from the earth – a remarkable circumstance without which there would be no solar eclipses. I recollect another letter that claimed to know how to hide and then retrieve the information in a wave by interfering it with a wave of equal and opposite amplitude to produce no wave at all.

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