PZ Myers had a post about a paper presented at the April meeting of the American Physical Society that made some outlandish claims about locating god’s throne. Some readers may be curious about how such a crazy paper made it into the program of a serious physics conference organized by the world’s largest professional organization of physicists and of which I am a member.
It is actually quite simple. Many physics conferences are on highly specialized topics and the papers selected for presentation are subjected to some level of screening to make sure they are relevant to the topic, though that level of screening may not rise to the level of peer review.
But there is one meeting of the APS that is called the General or the April Meeting (because it is usually held in that month) that covers the entire field of physics. This is my favorite meeting because I am a generalist and like to hear what is going on in other subfields.
But any member can submit an abstract of a talk for this meeting and many cranks do, claiming that they have disproven relativity or discovered perpetual motion or discovered time travel and the like. Rather than try to figure out whether the abstract promises serious science or not (an impossible task given the large number of submissions) the organizers would toss all the dubious ones into a separate pile and put them all in a single session at the very end of the conference when most of the attendees were drifting home or as the last talk in a regular session. This way the organizers can avoid the charge of censoring unorthodox views.
The paper by Robert Gentry that Myers referred to ended up as the last talk in a session. These papers are fairly easy to spot. The titles are often long and make strong claims (Gentry’s is Disproof of Big Bang’s Foundational Expansion Redshift Assumption Overthrows the Big Bang and Its No-Center Universe and Is Replaced by a Spherically Symmetric Model with Nearby Center with the 2.73K CMR Explained by Vacuum Gravity and Doppler Effects) and the author usually has no affiliation with a recognized institution.
The only problem is that if the numbers of such papers required a separate session, the organizers had to schedule a room and twist the arm of some hapless member of the organizing committee to chair the special session and act as moderator for these talks. It was usually the case that most of the presenters did not show up at all since they did not want to shell out the cost of conference registration, not to mention the travel and hotel costs. Their goal was just to say that they had an abstract ‘published’ that they could then tout to the gullible who did not know how easy it was that ‘presenting’ at a major physics conference was a sign that they were being taken seriously as scientists, which was not the case at all.
I used to enjoy reading these abstracts because they are fun but have noticed that they have been decreasing in numbers over time, maybe because with the internet cranks have other venues where they can spread their ideas.