How physics conferences treat crank papers

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.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I suppose there’s not enough time to weed out all the rubbish for a general meeting, but Gentry’s cluelessness about gravitation is obvious in this 2001 paper.

    On one hand, clusters of galaxies are pictured as separating to increasingly greater distances despite their large gravitational attraction. On the other hand, for some mysterious reason expansion is said to be unable to cause galaxies themselves to increase in size even though the gravitational attraction within them is smaller than between clusters.

    Yes, the gravitational force on the sun from its galaxy is much less than the force between two galaxy clusters. So what? The force on a boulder is much larger than the force on a pebble. What counts, as far as expansion (or motion in general) is concerned, is the gravitational field at a point, because, as Newton recognized, that is what determines motion, not the particular mass under consideration.

    So, Gentry argues that the 10^10 ratio of cluster-cluster force to sun-galaxy force implies that, if cluster-cluster separation is subject to expansion, the galaxy should be expanding even faster.

    No! The 10^(-4) ratio of cluster-cluster field to sun-galaxy field says that cluster-cluster separation is much more subject to expansion than a galaxy. The galaxy is gravitationally bound.

    This really is elementary stuff, which should put a permanent red flag next to Gentry’s name.

  2. Ollie Nanyes says

    In the largest mathematics meetings, there is sometimes a session on “elementary number theory” where cranks can present off-the-wall stuff.

    I actually met one guy who purported to “prove” that the cardinality of the real numbers is the same as the cardinality of the integers (that the real numbers are countable).

  3. Bakunin says

    I bet that his proof failed Cantor’s diagonalization, but he continued on anyways as if Cantor hadn’t said that for any bijection, he could find an unmapped number. Cranks seem incredibly suspicious of proofs that state that something is impossible regardless of method. Gödel is another one they love to hate.

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