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Column: Sorry, crackpots

1 February 2019

A Physics Today editor explains why we’re never going to publish your cockamamie theories.

Numerical relativity simulation
Two neutron stars spiral toward each other and merge in this numerical relativity simulation. Credit: T. Dietrich, S. Ossokine, H. Pfeiffer, A. Buonanno (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics), BAM collaboration

At my family Christmas gathering, I was sitting at the dinner table across from my uncle, a retired geologist, when the conversation turned to my job. He knows basically what I do; I’ve been at Physics Today for 12 years now, and we’d talked about it before. On this occasion, he was wondering about the specifics of where we get our feature articles. “Do people just submit them for publication?” he asked.

Picture of pen and paper

Miller’s Diary

Physics Today editor Johanna Miller reflects on the latest Search & Discovery section of the magazine, the editorial process, and life in general.

“Not usually,” I replied. Most of our feature articles are invited by our staff, once we identify interesting and important topics in the physical sciences and seek out the right people to write about them. But a significant minority of articles do come from authors who reach out to us unsolicited. We get a lot of good ideas that way, ideas that we might not have thought of ourselves. My editor-in-chief reliably informs me that our most viewed print article of 2018 (“Introductory physics labs: We can do better,” by Natasha Holmes and Carl Wieman, January 2018, page 38) had its origins in an unsolicited proposal.

To find those gems, we need to sort through piles of less promising submissions. In particular, we get a lot of letters from eccentric amateurs who believe they’ve arrived at some startling new insight heretofore unknown to the professional physics community, often about how the work of Albert Einstein was all wrong. Some of those, I explained to my uncle, can be rather amusing.

He looked thoughtful. “But isn’t it possible that one of them is right?”

I understand why he asked. We at Physics Today appreciate a good “everything you think you know is wrong” story as much as anyone else. My story for the February issue, about an unexpected change in spin state in a chemical reaction, arguably falls in that category. It’s a subtle result, but the implications are potentially profound: Molecules don’t always behave the way we expect them to, so some humility is warranted when considering how much we think we know about them. Importantly, though, that work was done by experienced physical chemists using state-of-the-art experimental and computational techniques. It was hardly a case of some plucky outsider taking down the arrogant establishment.

If some error were to come to light in, say, the theory of general relativity, the discovery would almost certainly be based on a similarly sophisticated level of understanding. The theory has withstood all the tests experimenters have thrown at it. What’s more, every measurement by GPS device requires a general relativistic correction to account for the slightly different speeds of clocks on satellites and on Earth’s surface. If it somehow turned out that the theory was nevertheless flawed, and the accuracy of GPS was all just a coincidence, that would be a big deal. We at Physics Today would certainly want to know about it.

We will not, however, be the ones to publish the research paper. Physics Today is a magazine, not a journal. We don’t publish original research, and we’re not in the business of evaluating the correctness of new theories. Get your work accepted by a reputable peer-reviewed journal first, and then we can consider covering it in our Search & Discovery department. But if you know enough about physics to have a hope of disproving Einstein, you surely know that already.

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