His paper rocked the physics world – and the space-time continuum. Not bad for a college dropout who critics say may not even exist.
Peter Lynds was having a rotten summer. He had quit a dead-end job at an insurance agency to go to college, but his first semester of physics and philosophy classes at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, was kicking his butt. He was still haunted by the memory of watching a friend drown eight years earlier (Lynds had nearly died trying to save him). So he spent the better part of August 1999 sitting on his mother’s couch watching television.
One of the bright spots in his life was that he’d recently fallen in love – with Einstein. Raiding the Wellington library, he pored over biographies like Denis Brian’s Einstein: A Life and devoured explanations of the great theorist’s work. One night he was watching the movie I.Q., with Walter Matthau as Einstein, Meg Ryan as his ditzy-yet-brainy niece, and Tim Robbins as a lovesick mechanic. When Robbins moves in on Ryan for a kiss, she attempts to fend him off with a 2,500-year-old paradox known as Zeno’s dichotomy: Moving from point A to point B requires that you first cover half the distance, then half of the remaining distance, and so on – an insurmountable infinity of almost-theres that keeps you from point B. Robbins crashes through Zeno’s logic by kissing Ryan anyway.
It was just the thing to get Lynds off the couch: What if Zeno’s real lesson isn’t that movement from point A to point B is impossible (obviously it isn’t), but rather that there is no such thing as a discrete slice of time?
He went back to school that fall with the fervor and the audacity of the converted. During an office-hours argument with physicist David Beaglehole, Lynds pointed at the professor’s coffee mug and demanded to know: At what “instant” would the mug not be moving if he dragged it across the desk? Exasperated, Beaglehole suggested that Lynds try to get his theory published, thinking that rejection from an academic journal would put the matter to rest.
Sure enough, Physical Review Letters, which published Einstein, said no thanks (“The author’s arguments are based on profound ignorance or misunderstanding of basic analysis and calculus,” one referee said). Foundations of Physics Letters didn’t respond. A third journal, in Canada, said yes, and then sent him a bill – it was a vanity press. Lynds withdrew.
But then something extraordinary happened. Lynds called Foundations to ask for his manuscript and was told the journal had no record of his paper. So he sent it again. It got rejected. Lynds revised it and submitted it a third time … and they said yes. The paper was published in August 2003, and Lynds became a celebrity. He was cheered (and jeered) on physics discussion Web sites. Big-name researchers talked to the press about his work. Conference invitations started pouring in.
Then again, the 30-year-old Lynds is holed up in a rustic New Zealand cabin, working on a theory-of-everything book that has no publisher. He still hasn’t finished college. If that sounds a little too Unabomber for a new kind of science, well, maybe it is.
Then again, Lynds might be right.
By Josh McHugh