FINDING THOMAS RIDER
Abandon common sense, all ye who enter here. – Professor Neil F. Comins, in Heavenly Errors
Thomas Rider first appeared in the form of a fuzzy faxed press release advertising his book, The Observer Dependent Theory of Cosmology. The author, it informed me, resided on the coast of Maine, and I remember thinking that it would be a hell of a trick to review such a tome and not have it read like the slow hardening of concrete.
So I ordered it.
The slim volume that arrived in the mail is blue- and purple-covered, fewer than 100 pages and riddled with typos. Published by an outfit calling itself 1st Books Library—a press that prints to order and boasts authors like Buddy Ebsen—it’s not a particularly impressive read. The prose is impenetrable (for example: “Even if an inertial frame was subject to a Lorentz contraction it would not change its velocity relative to a beam of light, therefore the frame would actually find light velocity to be C+V or C-V.”)
However, there is this note on an otherwise empty, cream-colored page near the back of the book: “About the Author: Scientific theories are judged by philosophical thought, experiment and observation; the author is irrelevant.”
Thomas Rider has a way, sometimes, of appearing and then disappearing. Who is this guy?
On page 1, he introduces his argument by way of Albert Einstein, Time magazine’s Man of the Millennium, who once began a very obscure essay: “The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” It seems simple enough. There is a world that exists outside of ourselves. If a tree falls in the forest, as the saying goes, I can be somewhere else having a beer. Not so fast, according to Ryder. “This statement is false and that consequently physics must be placed on a new foundation.” Physics is placed on a new foundation and perhaps the world as we claim to understand it is placed on its head!
Who is this guy?
THOMAS RIDER'S VOICE
I called a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Maine, a man named Neil F. Comins. He answered the phone, “Comins.” I told him I had this book and was looking for someone to put it into context for me. Is Rider a quack? Is he out on the fringes or is he accomplishing real science and even philosophy? Prof. Comins paused for a second and then intoned, “Summarize please.” I begged off. I told him I would bring the book and a summary to his office the following week. The professor cautioned me that he was very busy. He writes two to three books a year. Nevertheless, he concluded, “What you propose is reasonable to me.”
When we met on a humid afternoon in late May, Prof. Comins opened the book and scanned it quickly, before turning his straightforward gaze in my direction. “You do realize that your author suffers from medical problems and is a cigarette addict,” he announced with a Holmesian flourish. I told him I had no idea, so he called my attention to the acknowledgements page, which thanks “‘Miss Kitty’ for suggesting to proceed with the manuscript in the event the author was unable. Also, for owning a restaurant where the author could smoke and drink black coffee.”
Wow. Prof. Comins had noticed it too, how on the About the Author page, a mischievous Thomas Rider had hid. But on the acknowledgements page, ironically, there he was, plain as your mother’s cooking.
Earlier in the week I had been able, for the first time, to speak with Thomas Rider, whose number I obtained from his publisher. When he picked up the line, I asked him how he was doing. “Oh, not bad,” he slurred, “for an old man, broken down and mentally ill.”
Imagine John Kennedy’s Hyannisport accent on an old man, slow it down two to three times, drain three-quarters of its vim, and you’ve got the sonorous vibration that is Thomas Rider’s voice.
I asked him where he lived. “In Waldoboro. You ever been to Waldoboro?” I hadn’t. “Count yourself among the fortunate,” he replied. Then his voice momentarily darkened with skepticism. “Are you really interested in cosmology, Brendan?” I told him, with all sincerity, that I was. “Well, then you must be pretty weird, because I never met anybody interested in cosmology, not one person.”
We arranged to meet on a Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know too much,” Rider said, “but I know even less in the morning.”
THOMAS RIDER'S BLUE SUIT
My weekends have been an adventure in reading as I attempt to learn something about cosmology. For instance, I can tell you now that a “Lorentz contraction” is merely a scientific logic pretzel, whereby a turn-of-the-century Dutch physicist attempted to prove the idea that there is an absolute state of rest, that all motion is not relative. You see, this Lorentz fellow believed that light moved through the only fixed object in the universe, ether (light, it’s important to know, is a wave, and as good surfing waves travel through water, so light waves, according to the Dutchman, travel through ether). Einstein, humbly working out of a Swiss patent office, refuted this nonsense. All motion is, too, relative, he claimed, so long as you’re willing to abandon the idea of absolute time.
I won’t go into Einstein’s theories of relativity because I can’t go into Einstein’s theories of relativity. But I will say this: What cosmologists for millennia have been debating and, in too many cases, staking their lives on is really very simple. They’re searching for a frame of reference. Who is moving in relation to whom? Aristotle was convinced that the Earth was the fixed center of the universe and everything neatly revolved around it. A Polish priest called Copernicus risked ex-communication by suggesting it was the sun that was still and the Earth that was revolving. Then somebody noticed that the sun was moving.
It’s all about relationships. Sir Isaac Newton, a preternaturally unpleasant Englishman, was forever reluctant to admit it (the notion just didn’t jibe with his belief in an absolute God), but his laws of motion held up regardless of which body was in motion or, for that matter, if both bodies were in motion. His reluctance wasn’t fully overcome until Einstein changed the frame of reference again, suggesting, simply, that anything and everything can be a frame of reference.
But now Thomas Rider wants to change it again. All physicists worth their salt, he says, understand that in evaluating their observations, they must take into account the tools they employ to make those observations. So must a scientist, peering out into the deepest cosmos, take into account his very existence and the constrictions it invariably places on his understanding. To do otherwise is to ignore the most important relationship of all. Beyond that, though, Rider contends that the observer actually determines the laws of nature and with them our understanding of the universe. Hence, observer dependent theory.
“Apples and oranges,” answers Prof. Comins, leaning confidently back in his creaking office chair. “It is absolutely experimentally true that the observer does affect certain experiments. That’s not an issue. But what happened to create the universe created the universe regardless of whether we existed or would ever exist. Our presence here simply gives us the opportunity to observe it.”
There’s nothing like a good scientific tussle, so when I arrived at Rider’s Waldoboro hideout, I told him I had already spoken with Prof. Comins. “Just out of curiosity, what did he tell you about this crap I’m doing?” he inquired in that broad coastal accent of his. He was seated at his dusty kitchen table, flanked by a stack of unopened cigarette boxes and dressed in a full-body blue jumpsuit. “He probably said it’s a mess of crap, didn’t he?”
THOMAS RIDER'S FOREST
There’s a calendar hanging in the entryway of Rider’s kitchen and it is turned to December 1979. What the calendar chooses to ignore, however, the rest of his house cannot: The ravages of time are everywhere. His décor is heavy and antique and buried under a quarter century of dust. A picture of his aunt, circa 1950, is the only thing visible on the living room walls. And two moth-eaten wool socks are suspended from a wire hanger over the black iron wood stove. Meanwhile, old gray-haired Rider has suffered too, looking years beyond his 56. Could it be that he has sustained himself on nothing more than coffee and cigarettes? The evidence is suggestive.
For money he sells mums, which sprout inside an army of black pots lined up out back. And he operates a diamond-consulting business by appointment only. Otherwise Thomas Rider, who never bothered going to college, is busy waiting.
“There’s something happening right now—almost nobody is aware of it—but there’s a revolution in human thought that’s being developed,” he told me early on in our long conversation. “And I’m glad that you are young because when I started 50 years ago, I thought possibly I could see the first part of it develop during my lifetime. When I was 10 years old, I wondered to myself, ‘Will I even see the first of it develop?’ Because I figured it’s gonna be 50 or 100 years, and it’s so big they don’t see it. The physicists, the cosmologists, they’re completely blind to it. It’s like seeing the forest for the trees. The more important something is, I’ve found, the less people see of it.”
“You had the observer dependent theory figured out when you were 10?”
“I had the most of it done when I was 10,” Rider said matter-of-factly. “I get so aggravated because people constantly keep telling me they don’t understand what I’m talking about. At about 1972, I got so fed up I said I’m not going to talk to anybody else again about it. I’ve had it. I tried to contact universities, colleges, physicists, cosmologists, philosophers, and it was the same old thing: ‘What you’re saying is too far into the future. It’s philosophical. The theory of relativity is right.(1) We know it all. It can’t be different than how we think it is.’ They are the most arrogant and egotistical people I ever—”
Here, Rider sighs.
“I thought the ones in the diamond business was bad enough.”
Rider is waiting for that revolution in human thought, but he is also waiting, almost against hope, for someone to take him seriously.
THOMAS RIDER'S GOD
In fact, Rider’s observer dependent theory is similar to something called the Anthropic Principle, a phrase coined in 1974 by a Brit called Brandon Carter, who wrote from his prestigious post at Cambridge that “what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.”
Rider claims not to be interested in whether Carter stole his idea, which he copyrighted two years earlier. He only wants to offer it as proof of his own credibility. “How [Carter] ever got them to take this serious, I don’t know,” he said. “But they’ve got the first baby step. And then I thought, well, if they’ve got the first baby step, now they’re going to pay attention to what I’m saying. Well, they don’t pay attention to what I’m saying.”
Which is true. The Anthropic Principle has fallen out of favor with mainstream science while cultivating an underground following, in large part because of its theological implications. Taken to its extreme, the theory proclaims that “intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and once it comes into existence, it will never die out” (the italics are mine). The idea comes from the same Design Argument for the existence of God that many of us learned in our Intro to Philosophy course in college: The appearance of order in the universe implies a creator. Now the Anthropic Principle takes it a step further: The appearance of people implies a universe designed to allow for their existence.
Actually, a huge volume titled The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, published by two respected cosmologists in 1986, doesn’t go quite that far. Barrow and Tipler argue that the appearance of design is the whole point. It’s just an appearance. As observers, we dictate the terms of our understanding—our field of vision—and so aren’t in a position to make any claims beyond that.
Rider is clearly impatient with much of the Anthropic Principle as it has been presented. Except for his cat Tig, whom he calls “the brains of the outfit,” he’s impatient with everybody. From his point of view, the universe is slowly becoming more organized, not less (for those of you scoring at home, scratch the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Our three-dimensional existence, he argues, is a function of our highly organized biology, and that on quantum, or extremely small, scales, it breaks down. This is how Rider explains the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And he makes the fantastic leap from quantum mechanics to relativity—the highly prized Grand Unification Theory—by combining his dimensions theory with the claim that gravity is actually the absence of force.
I won’t go into Rider’s theory of gravity because I can’t go into Rider’s theory of gravity. But I will say this: In Rider’s world, none of us is without purpose or design, meeting our end in some meaningless cosmic drift. None of us, that is, except for Thomas Rider.
“There’s a friend of mine in Damariscotta who runs the grocery store, and he’s got a few of my books in there,” Rider told me. “And I noticed one day how somebody that knew me picked the book up and was reading the title. And this man and his wife were trying to figure it out, Observer Dependent Theory of Cosmology. ‘Oh!’ the man says. ‘That’s one of those men that likes to work on women’s hair!’ I knew, without saying it, what they were thinking. ‘We’ve known he was crazy for years. But he’s queer, too!’”
Believe me, we laughed. But the frame of reference for Thomas Rider is much grander than that. “The point is, we are encroaching on the realm of God, we scientists,” according to Prof. Comins back in his stuffy little office at UMaine. What he meant is that we are pushing ourselves to the rough and windy ledge of what humans can understand. What we think we know can often be the furthest from the truth. From under a pile of papers on his desk, Prof. Comins pulled out a draft copy of his latest book, Heavenly Errors. “Here, read this,” he instructed, pointing to the epigraph, a twist on Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon common sense, all ye who enter here.”
Maine Times, July 2001
1 Or maybe not.