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An Imaginative Connection Between Art and Science

Art Review

James Carter, physicist and free thinker, is the focus of an exhibition putting some universal truths to the test.


Whether you're stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway or visiting an art exhibition that doesn't seem to make sense, a little patience goes a long way. Nowhere is this truer than at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, whose walls have been covered with computer-printed diagrams, hand-drawn flow charts, neatly typed explanations, complicated physics equations and photographic illustrations.

Four vitrines, packed with books, pamphlets and professional correspondences, form an "X" in the center of the main gallery. Four monitors, embedded in the walls, show animated sequences of atomic particles interacting with one another. Two inflatable models hang from the rafters, and a dozen brightly colored flotation devices, also blown up to maximum capacity, are stacked in various corners.

To scan the scene is to know, very quickly, that someone has gone to great lengths to put forward some pretty ambitious propositions about the nature of the universe. To decide whether these arguments hold water takes a lot more time, which is where patience comes in. Ultimately, the conclusions you come to depend on your view of the relationship between art and science, and the role the imagination plays in both.

Organized by Margaret Wertheim, an independent scholar and frequent radio commentator whose publications include "Pythagoras' Trousers" and "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet," the exhibition is long on words and short on images. Titled "Lithium Legs and Apocalyptic Photons: The Imaginative World of James Carter," it is a three-dimensional version of two books by the self-taught physicist, "The Other Theory of Physics" and "Gravity Does Not Exist."

As you make your way through the information-laden displays, details about Carter's all-encompassing theory fall into place. Like the Greek philosophers Thales and Anaxemenes, and the medieval theologian Robert Grosseteste, Carter proposes that a single key unlocks the secrets of the universe. But where his predecessors looked to water, air or light as their primary principles, he turns to the "circlon," a molecular structure shaped like a bicycle tire's inner tube.

Carter describes circlons as atomic Lego blocks, interlocking rings that snap together to form all the elements. The most impressive component of the installation is his wall-size version of Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table. In Carter's hands, modern science's most recognizable icon maintains its logic and internal consistency even after it's transformed into a chart that resembles 112 juxtaposed subway maps, each more colorful and complex than the last.

Starting with hydrogen and helium, whose particles are depicted three-dimensionally, the chart switches to two dimensions at lithium. As more information is compressed into each element's page-size box, symmetry increases. By the time you get to actinium, thorium and protactinium (the 89th, 90th and 91st elements), you may need reading glasses to follow the neat patterns of circlons, whose crisscrossed structures mimic the formation of crystals.

In classic overachiever style, Carter has made a table that improves upon the original. His version includes nine additional elements, eight unnamed ones and circlonium, that tie up loose ends and round out the whole at a more aesthetically satisfying 112.

Other displays outline other aspects of Carter's theories. In "The Creation of the Universe in Eight Days," he takes issue with the big-bang theory, proposing, instead, that the universe started when two massive circlons mated. A series of divisions and fusions followed, leading, one step at a time, to the present state of the universe. At first, the claim seems to be nuttier than a fruitcake, but the deeper you dive into it, the less farfetched it becomes. Too many details correspond to known facts for it to be utter nonsense.

The beauty of Carter's system is that it is mechanistic. In it, bodies made of matter interact with one another; no invisible forces exert mysterious powers over things. Like Christiaan Huygens, who invented the pendulum clock, and James Clerk Maxwell, who tried to develop a mechanical theory of electricity and magnetism, Carter seeks to explain things simply and clearly. In all of his work, there's very little that's counterintuitive.

His system's biggest glitch involves gravity, which he just can't make sense of by ordinary means. But rather than letting gravitation bring his theory crashing to the ground, he makes an end run around it.

According to Carter, all matter is constantly expanding, increasing in size like an unpoppable balloon into which air is constantly being pumped. Thus, objects do not fall to the ground. The surface of the Earth rises to meet them.

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