The Peter Lynds Affair

***Warning: What follows may contain remarks that are nothing more than overly skeptical, hare-brained speculation. Or they may not be. But at the very least, the story that is told offers a curious object lesson in what happens when you start thinking about the problem of how hard it can be to verify the identities of people that we only read about or interact with online. This, despite the fact that we live in the 'Age of Information.'***

On July 31 a press release was issued that soon appeared on EurekAlert Science News as well as on other sites. It declared the imminent publication of a "Ground-breaking work in understanding of time." This work was authored by an until-then unknown researcher called Peter Lynds, who was described as a 27-year-old college dropout living in Wellington New Zealand.

The press release was written by one Brooke Jones, an 'Independent Communications Consultant.' The release contained some rather strong claims. For instance, it suggested that "Lynds' work seems likely to establish him as a groundbreaking figure in respect to increasing our understanding of time in physics." Rather strong language for a scientific press release. But perhaps strong language was needed for such extraordinary work.

News of this ground-breaking work soon spread around the world, sparking intense discussion among physicists. But people couldn't help asking, 'Who is Peter Lynds?' Is he perhaps just a hoax, a pseudonym created by another physicist? After all, no one had ever heard of Lynds before. Perhaps, people speculated, an established scientist was trying to pull a practical joke on his or her peers, much like Alan Sokal did in 1996.

The extravagant nature of the claims, especially the remarks comparing Peter Lynds to Einstein, seemed to invite such speculation. In addition, there were many who felt that there was nothing ground-breaking about the work at all. That it, in fact, seemed to be little more than curious, yet not terribly original, philosophical musings.

An article published in the Guardian on August 14 addressed these questions. The author of the article, David Adam, tracked down Peter Lynds and called him up at his home in Wellington. David Adam was convinced that Lynds was quite legitimate. Peter Lynds, in other words, appeared to be exactly what he claimed to be: a 27-year-old college dropout who had succeeded in getting an article published in a physics journal.

It's around this point that I got involved in this story. I posted a note remarking on David Adam's article in my weblog. A day or two later I then received a comment from a visitor about the Peter Lynds affair, and I posted this on my website also, in a separate section (it's reproduced at the bottom of this page). The visitor had pointed out that if one does a news search for the name 'Peter Lynds' references to a broker working in Wellington pop up. He also speculated that Brooke Jones was an alias that Lynds himself was using.

I thought nothing of this post at first, and three days passed. But then I received an email from Peter Lynds himself (and his father) asking that I remove the visitor's post from my website. I responded that while I sympathized with him (I thought it must be pretty weird to have people arguing about whether you exist or not), I didn't feel the post was inappropriate or slanderous, and so it should remain. In fact, I thought the argument over his identity represented an interesting sociological phenomenon, i.e. how do we establish a person's true identity when we can never actually see or meet them? And so I wanted to preserve the small piece of this argument that had spilled over onto my website. I also suggested that the best way to respond to inaccurate statements is not to censor them, but rather to counter them with accurate, more credible statements.

Soon after a response came from Peter: he still wanted the post removed. There was some other stuff thrown in there as well. Something about me being unethical for refusing to remove it. Anyway, tempers were soon raised and battle lines drawn. I was now determined NOT to remove the post. Peter was determined to make me remove it. And so I started to become suspicious. Why in the world did he want that post down so badly? Why not just ignore it?

This is when an idea occurred to me. Perhaps this idea was born in anger, perhaps because I tend to be a skeptical kind of person anyway. Whatever the origin of it, the idea was that perhaps people were asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'Who is Peter Lynds?' perhaps they should have been asking, as the visitor to my site had, who that woman was who had written the press release about Mr. Lynds, thus generating so much attention for him. In other words, 'Who is Brooke Jones?'

This is when I began to do some detective work to track down Brooke Jones. The only information I had about her was that I knew she was the woman who had written the glowing press release about him, but a search in news databases (Lexis-Nexis) indicated that she hadn't written anything else during her career in public relations.

Her email address was listed as [email protected]. is, of course, a provider of free email accounts, much like Yahoo or Hotmail. So that didn't provide much information about her. In fact, anyone could have created an email account under the name Brooke.Jones. As an experiment, I created an account under the name 'Alex Jones.' It was no problem. Just took a minute. You can send email to me there, [email protected], though don't be surprised if I never respond, because I doubt I'll be checking that account often.

I did a search in the New Zealand Yellow Pages for PR agencies based in Wellington. There was no 'Brooke Jones, Communications Consultant' listed.

Then I discovered that Brooke was registered with a wire service called News Wise. I found this by doing a google search for her name. It was through News Wise that she had disseminated the release about Peter. Her business address was also listed on their site. It was : XX XXX XXX, Paremata, Wellington, New Zealand. (I've blanked out the street address for privacy purposes, though you can see it by clicking on the link). So at last I had some info about Ms. Jones.

I decided to compare Brooke's information with whatever I could find out about Peter Lynds. Well, Peter said that he lived in Wellington, New Zealand. So I did a search for his address in the Wellington White Pages. There was no Peter Lynds, but I saw that there were some other people named Lynds, and then it caught my eye. One of these Lynds's lived at this address: XX XXX XXX, Paremata. I knew I'd seen that address before, and then it struck me. That was also Brooke Jones's business address.

Further investigation soon revealed that Peter had listed this as his own address in the contact info for his article published in the August issue of the Foundations of Physics Letters.

So now I had come across something weird. Brooke Jones's business address appeared to be the same as Peter's home address. Did this mean that Brooke really was an alias of Peter? Well maybe, but maybe not.

I posted my detective work on my site, and now Peter really went ballistic, firing off emails in rapid succession threatening to sue me if I didn't take the information down. Of course, I wasn't about to take it down because I was on the hunt now. I figured that I had found the smoking gun.

Peter explained to me that Brooke was his 'media representative' and that they had agreed to send all correspondence about the press release directly to him. That's why his address had been used for her contact info. This explanation didn't make me much less skeptical.

Now, a few days later, the excitement of it all is beginning to subside and I'm not sure what I've found. I sent an email to Brooke's email address (that one) asking if she had a work address or phone number. She (or someone using that account) responded that she'd be willing to call me, but was uncomfortable giving me her contact info. I sent her my phone number, but she hasn't called yet. Even if she were to call, I'm not sure what it would prove. Kaycee Nicole Swenson happily talked to people on the phone. That didn't mean she existed. But I digress.

In the meantime, I'm entertaining a couple of different theories:
  1. Brooke Jones really is an alias that Peter created. This technique of deception is sometimes called creating a 'sock puppet.'
  2. Brooke Jones is a friend of Peter's who agreed to pose as a press agent in order to issue this press release about him.
  3. Brooke Jones really is a press agent. She's just one who doesn't like direct contact with the media, for whatever reason. This is a bit odd, but it's not a crime.
I'm going to let people come to their own conclusions. Maybe this is all quite innocent. At this point, I think I've spent altogether too much time already speculating about it, so I'm dropping the search and focusing on things that need my attention more urgently (such as my dissertation).

Here's a comment from Peter himself that he requested I post on my site in response to everything above:
Dear Alex,

I couldn't care less if you think me or Brooke don't exist. If I payed any attention to the conspiracy theories about me that have popped up in the past few weeks, I'd end up as crazy as the people that think of them. The reason I took offence originally to you keeping that post up, was that I'd written and pointed out to you that the Wellington Sharebroker mentioned was my uncle, that Brooke Jones and I certainly existed, that you didn't seem to reailse that you were dealing with people's reputations, and yet you still kept it up. I wrote to you once more, and I think rather politely given the circumstances, asked that it please be removed. The next time I checked, not only had you not removed it, but you'd listed my phone number, home address, as well as that of some of my relatives, posted an angry e-mail to you from my father (also informing you that the entry was crazy), bought my mum into things (who died of caner 4 months ago), my father (who lives 1000km away), as well as said that Brooke didn't exist either. The original post also said I was 17 year old radio school student.

Given the above, possibly you can understand why I think that in keeping the post up, that you were acting unethically. Also why after you'd listed my contact details and bought my mum into things, I threatened legal action if you didn't remove what you'd posted.


The reference to his mother may not seem to make sense any longer. It's because the Lynds listed in the Wellington White Pages turned out to be his mother's name. Sorry about that. But I didn't bring Peter's mother into this intentionally.

Here's the original comment from the visitor that got the whole argument going in the first place:
A bit of research for you. Just a week ago, a Peter Lynds from an insurance broker in Wellington NZ was advising a top finance website on the state of the economy: "Broker Peter Lynds of Direct Broking said there were few signs of the market being affected by concerns about a suspected case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease case in the Waikato. "
In the UK's Guardian paper Lynds mentioned he came up with his theory when he was 'bored working in a dead end job in insurance'. Could it be the same guy? Apparently not:
Lynds, who's supposed to be a tutor at a Radio College in fact is listed as a *student* there. Check out for that familiar essay style! Also on the current website: "Peter is one of the best creative talents we've ever had the privilege of having here at the school." - with the photo mysteriously removed. To see the picture that's missing try:
He looks about 16-17 yrs old! Certainly not the 27 yr old of 'Brooke's' press releases.
Also, it appears that this 'press officer' Brooke Jones, author of the many articles that fuelled this controversy, has a similar IP address to Lynds, and has never used her email address except in relation to this news story.
Summary? I think he's a very bright 17 yr old radio student, who's written some genuine philosophical speculations on time, then fancies having a go at spreading it around, the response being more than he could have imagined. He is also Brooke Jones. To pad out his story, he's using another 'Peter Lynds' from Wellington, the insurance broker, as a cover.
It's a kind of a hoax, but that doesn't mean he's wrong about time...

Sunday, August 17, 2003 at 19:13:24