Self-publishing to avoid peer review is now available to just about everyone. Indivisible Earth nicely demonstrates a lot of what can go wrong.
Indivisible Earth: Consequences of Earth's Early Formation as a Jupiter-Like Gas Giant, by J. Marvin Herndon, edited by Lynn Margulis. Published by Thinker Media. Available for Kindle for $3.99.
Reviewed by John Timmer.
Peer review is an inherently conservative process. New ideas are compared to what we think we already know and, if they don't match up well, then the ideas' proponents can be in for a very rough time. Those on the fringes of science, who may struggle for years to get a single paper published by a journal, will often paint peer review as a stifling process that does little more than enforce a mindless orthodoxy.
If you wanted to do an end-run on peer review and put your ideas out for public consideration, your options used to be pretty limited: pay a lot of money to self-publish a book that no one would buy.
Digital media has changed that. Web pages are cheap, and can make psedoscience seem very polished. (Just look at the Electric Universe site, where a bunch of "comparative mythologists" will try to convince you that gravity has little to do with the large-scale structure of the cosmos.). And, as Amazon (and later Apple) opened the door to self-published eBooks, anyone with an idea that isn't getting respect via peer review could now place it before the a large potential audience.
J. Marvin Herndon has done just that. Herndon is a physicist by training who, after spending time in the private sector, has turned his attention to planetary science. He has some ideas that, to put it mildly, are pretty fanciful. But, thanks to eBooks, he's now able to let those ideas float free of the burden of peer review. Indivisible Earth is one of several of the books Herndon has on offer, and its subtitle lays out why the scientific peerage might not greet it kindly: "Consequences of Earth's Early Formation as a Jupiter-Like Gas Giant."
The number of established scientific ideas Herndon would like to overthrow is staggering. Current models of planet formation (both rocky and gas giant)? Completely incompatible with Indivisible Earth. The formation of our Moon via collision? Presumably never happened (the Moon is never mentioned in the book). The composition of the Earth? We've got it all wrong. Plate tectonics? A big mistake. The mantle convection that drives the plates and volcanic hot spots like Hawaii? Doesn't exist. The plate motion that creates earthquakes? There is no plate motion, silly.
Oh, yes, and most of the Earth's uranium has sunk to the core, where it's acting as a massive reactor, powering the planet's magnetic field. Herndon doesn't think small.
The writing itself is fine, in that it's easy to follow these ideas. It's just that the scientific reasoning has gaps you could drive an aircraft carrier through. I'll give just a few examples.
At some point in the past, Herndon realized that certain measurements of the Earth's properties matched up well with those of a class of meteorites called enstatite chondrites. Therefore, he concludes, Earth must have formed by the aggregation of these materials. To back this up, he shows a graph of the properties of enstatite chondrites vs. ordinary chondrites.
But the graph itself makes one thing very obvious: ordinary chondrites, as their name implies, are much, much more common than enstatites. Suggesting the Earth somehow selectively aggregated from rare meteorites would, I would think, seem to demand some mechanism by which that selectivity took place. Herndon, apparently, considers mechanisms optional.
That's just warming up — he's still got all of plate tectonics to get rid of.
Current models of gas giant formation indicate that these giant planets require a rocky core with a mass about 20 times that of Earth's before they can start a runaway accumulation of gas. Rather significantly, the Kepler planet-hunting telescope has recently found empirical evidence that these models are correct: gas giants only seem to form when there's a lot of rocky material around. Herndon thinks the early Earth must have been part of a gas giant and, to get there, he's forced to rely on a model that was state-of-the-art in 1944. Everything we've learned since is simply ignored.
Once the Earth was at the center of a gas giant, Herndon thinks the intense pressure of the massive atmosphere compressed the gas giant's rocky core so that it shrunk to the point where its surface was completely covered by what we now call continental plates. In other words, the entire surface of our present planet was once much smaller, and all land mass.
I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this, figuring out the radius of a sphere that would have the same surface area as our current land mass. It was only half the planet's present size. Using that radius to calculate the sphere's volume, it's possible to figure out the density (assuming a roughly current mass). That produced a figure six times higher than the Earth's current density — and about three times that of pure lead. I realize that a lot of the material in the Earth can be compressed under pressure, but I'm pretty skeptical that it can compress that much. And, more importantly, if Herndon wants to convince anyone that it did, this density difference is probably the sort of thing he should be addressing. He's not bothered; the idea that the continents once covered the surface of the Earth was put forward in 1933, and that's good enough for him.
To get rid of the gas, Herndon posits that our Sun went through what's called a T Tauri phase, where the process of gravitational collapse drives a strong stellar wind that could blast off the gas giant's atmosphere. But that phase often takes place before planet formation (half the T Tauri stars we know about still have protoplanetary disks). Did our own Sun go through this phase after planet formation was complete? Who knows — Herndon certainly doesn't feel compelled to provide any evidence.
With the gas gone and its pressure relieved, the Earth could expand, with the continents separating out as it did. This, for Herndon, creates the illusion of continental drift. The mid-ocean rifts? They're just cracks left over from this expansion. The subduction zones deep in the ocean? Same thing. The former subduction zones that have ended up being driven to the surface by tectonic action? Well, those would be hard to place within Herndon's model, so they never get mentioned.
There are so many issues like that that it's not even clear that Indivisible Earth belongs at Download the Universe —we're focused on science eBooks, and this clearly isn't part of the scientific process that most of us recognize. At the same time, crackpots and fringe ideas have been a part of the social activity we call science for so long that I suspect they predate the use of the term. In that way, the book could provide a valuable example: This is what crackpottery looks like, and shows why peer review is important.
It's also an interesting footnote in the history of fringe ideas. For reasons that aren't at all clear (given that she was ostensibly a biologist), the book was edited by the late Lynn Margulis. Margulis is rightly famous for taking a fringe idea — eukaryotic cells contain compartments that were once free-living cells — and, with the backing of data she and others generated, making it a central part of modern biology.
Armed with the prestige that she rightly earned, however, Margulis spent much of the rest of her career poking her thumbs in the eyes of the establishment that had given her a hard time, pushing forward fringe ideas even when they were obviously incompatible with data we already had. She suggested that HIV might not be infectious and pushed through a paper that suggested insects have an evolutionary history that's is impossible to square with what we know of their genomes. Her willingness to advance the clearly off-target ideas in Indivisible Earth is a classic example of Margulis in action, and provides an interesting case study in that sense.
She wasn't alone in helping Herndon, though, as the book is credited to a publisher, Thinker Media, Inc. As near as I can tell, Thinker has a nice Facebook page, but hasn't bothered to actually set up a company website yet (see update below). The company claims to provide various services to authors for a cut of the profits, rather than for a payment from the author, as is the case with traditional vanity presses.
If its business model has been updated for the digital age, the services the company provides haven't. On some levels, Indivisible Earth fails as an ebook. It's got a number of color diagrams and images, all of which have extensive captions. But its primary platform appears to be the Amazon Kindle, which means it really should be readable on a black-and-white e-ink screen. The diagrams are not, and their captions are displayed in a light grey that's nearly impossible to make out on the screens. I ended up having to download it onto my phone to complete the review.
Indivisible Earth is thus a bad ebook with bad scientific content. But for someone wanting a glimpse into what goes on at the far fringes of the scientific endeavor, it might be worth the low cost of entry.
UPDATE: Someone who works with Thinker Media informed me that they recently changed their domain name, and that the company's new site is up and running.
John Timmer spent 15 years doing scientific research before deciding he'd rather write about it. He's now the science editor of the technology news site Ars Technica. He received a Kindle on the day Amazon first introduced them, and has been following eBook and eReader technology ever since.