Margaret Wertheim’s book discusses her encounters with the natural philosophers. She is interested in them as characters in a human tragedy, with the seriousness and dignity that tragedy imposes. Her leading character is Jim Carter, and her main theme is the story of his life and work. Unlike most of the philosophical dreamers, Carter is a capable engineer and does real experiments to test his ideas. He runs a successful business that gives him leisure to pursue his dreams. He is a man of many talents, with one fatal flaw.

Carter’s flaw is his unshakable belief in a theory of the universe based on endless hierarchies of circlons. Circlons are mechanical objects of circular shape. The history of the universe is a story of successive generations of circlons arising by processes of reproduction and fission. He verified the behavior of circlons by doing experiments with smoke rings at his home. A smoke ring is a visible manifestation of a circlon. He built an experimental apparatus using garbage cans and rubber sheeting to make long-lived smoke rings under controlled conditions. The fact that smoke rings can interact with one another and maintain a stable existence proves that circlons can do the same. Just as the standard theory of nuclear physics is verified by accelerator experiments, he claims that his theory is verified by his garbage can experiments at a million times lower cost. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, he tells his story over and over to listeners who will not believe it.

Freeman Dyson. Read it all: it’s an important essay on the boundaries of the scientific enterprise.