It began after I started as a teaching assistant at the department of physics. The first note was a classic – it proved Albert Einstein wrong. The second one solved the problem of quantum mechanics by dividing several equations through zero, a feat that supposedly explained non-determinism. The next correspondent offered a Theory of Everything, and complained that the academic mainstream was ignoring his insights.
I work in theoretical physics, specifically quantum gravity. In my field, we all get them: the emails from amateur physicists who are convinced that they have solved a big problem, normally without understanding the problem in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I would reply with advice, references and lecture notes. And, like my colleagues, I noticed that the effort was futile. The gap was too large; these were people who lacked even the basic knowledge to work in the area they wanted to contribute to. With a feeling of guilt, I stopped replying.
Then they came back into my life. I had graduated and moved to another job, then another. I’d had temporary contracts of between three months and five years. It normally works out somehow, but sometimes there’d be a gap between the end of one contract and the start of the next. This happened again last year. I have kids, and rent to pay, so I tried to think of creative ways to capitalise on 15 years of research experience.
As long as you have funding, quantum gravity is basic research at its finest. If not, it’s pretty much useless knowledge. Who, I wondered, could possibly need someone who knows the ins and outs of attempts to unify the forces and unravel the quantum behaviour of space-time? I thought of all the theories of everything in my inbox. And I put up a note on my blog offering physics consultation, including help with theory development: ‘Talk to a physicist. Call me on Skype. $50 per 20 minutes.’
If you wonder how it turned out, read the article.