When I first heard that rapper B.o.B apparently believes the Earth is flat, I sighed the weary sigh of a science writer facing down an anti-science culture. Evolution, climate change, vaccines, and now #FlatEarth? “Are you kidding me?” I thought. Will Americans insist on rejecting everything that 100 percent of scientists agree on? Aside from B.o.B’s delightful diss track aimed at Neil deGrasse Tyson (and Tyson’s equally delightful response), this latest dustup just felt like more of the same. But then I clicked through and read B.o.B’s original arguments, and they stirred my very soul.
No, he did not convince me that the Earth is flat, you dopes. You and I both know it’s round. NASA knows it’s round. It’s round. Ok? The Earth is round. But let’s take at look some samples from B.o.B’s #FlatEarth tweetstorm.
Take a look especially at the tweet that started it all: “The cities in the background are approx. 16 miles apart … where is the curve? please explain this.” There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees. So he’s collecting evidence, seeking out literature by well-versed “experts,” and working out a better theory on his own.
This is the hallmark of people I’ve come to think of as outsider physicists. You might know them by other names: loons, kooks, crackpots. Most scientists and science writers consider them a nuisance, as they often clog up our inboxes and even (shudder) voicemails with their wacky theories, desperate for validation. I occasionally get those emails, and I almost always ignore them. But years ago, the physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim decided to pay attention to the fringe theories that came her way. “The Big Bang theory accepted by a majority of scientists constitutes the greatest blunder and misinterpretation in the history of cosmology.” The universe is a “12 lobed Raspberry in a dodecahedral configuration.” And oh so many more.Some had an internal logic she could follow. Others made no sense at all. But as she wrote in her 2011 book Physics on the Fringe, their architects all shared a sense that physics had veered woefully off-track somewhere around the time it started relying on differential equations to describe invisible phenomenon, from magnetic fields to Higgs bosons.
In the last 150 years or so, physics has taken a turn away from the intuitive and toward the abstract. It’s not rolling balls and falling apples anymore; it’s quantum states and curved spacetime. (And let’s not even get into string theory, which might as well be an outsider theory itself for all the experimental evidence it has backing it up—i.e., none so far.) That turn has left some people—perhaps B.o.B included—extremely unsettled. Physics is supposed to be about understanding the world I live in, they think. But I don’t see any time dilation/entangled quarks/curvature of the Earth when I look around me. Why should I trust this math I can’t understand over what I see with my own eyes?
Most of us are content to passively swallow the harsh truth that the fundamental laws of the universe are too complicated to grasp without a graduate education in math. We trust that somewhere along the way, scientists smarter than we are actually did the calculations and got the right answers. The evidence is right there in our GPS satellites, our smart phones, our space station. I don’t need to check their work, we think. Not outsider physicists. They insist on figuring everything out for themselves, in ways they can understand. They are driven by the sense that their “own experience must be the starting point for [their] understanding of the world,” Wertheim wrote in her remarkably generous and empathetic book. So they come up with their own ideas, sometimes even designing and performing experiments to back them up.
Most of the current crop of outsider physicists are out to prove Einstein and/or quantum mechanics wrong; arguing that the Earth is flat is a fringe position in a fringe movement. But B.o.B’s Twitter crusade illuminates the best qualities of outsider physics: its skepticism, its curiosity, and its fierce desire to make sense of a confusing world in a rigorous way. These same values lie at the heart of mainstream science, too. They are what make science special. They are what make science science.
But theoretical physics isn’t just science. It’s also a creative pursuit, one that exists in parallel to and sometimes even ahead of experimental evidence. (Remember those string theorists?) One of Wertheim’s central arguments is that theoretical physics helps us feel at home in the universe in the same way that music, literature, and art do. Many professional physicists would agree, with their odes to the beauty of their formulas and the poetry of the deep symmetries they reveal. If you buy into that premise—and I do—there’s a corollary waiting for you: Anyone can make art. It won’t all be good, but for most people looking for a creative outlet, being good isn’t really the point.
That, to me, is what makes #FlatEarth fundamentally different from climate change denial, creationism, or the anti-vaxx movement. It’s not really about exposing a supposed scientific “fraud,” it doesn’t have a political or religious agenda, and it’s not out to stop professional scientists from doing their important work and applying what they learn to improve the world. It’s just a bunch of amateur theorists trying their best to feel at home in the universe, in a way many scientists might well recognize if they let themselves. Theoretical physics isn’t brain surgery; unless you are in charge of Soyuz reentry paths or something, no one is going to die if you do it wrong. At worst, you’ll irritate some mainstream scientists or become briefly infamous on social media. At best, you’ll blaze your own trail through the universe’s mysteries and end up somewhere wondrous—even if you’re the only one who knows it. So let a million theories flourish, including #FlatEarth. When they come from a place of such genuine curiosity and creativity, who cares if they’re wrong?