ASHLAND — It's not often that a college dropout, self-taught in astrophysics, publishes an article in a prestigious scientific journal proposing a major new theory on the structure of spiral galaxies — but that's what Erik Anderson of Ashland did.

ASHLAND — It's not often that a college dropout, self-taught in astrophysics, publishes an article in a prestigious scientific journal proposing a major new theory on the structure of spiral galaxies — but that's what Erik Anderson of Ashland did.

In a new theory that may rewrite galactic dynamics, Anderson and his collaborator, Dr. Charles Francis, of Hastings, England, wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A that instead of being an orderly, four-armed affair, the Milky Way galaxy is really a tightly wound, two-armed system in which stars orbit in elliptical patterns, jumping from one giant arm to the next.

The theory, four years in the making — and done mostly with computers and spreadsheets, rather than telescopes — was peer-reviewed by three top astrophysicists. Two liked it but suggested some changes; the third dismissed it as "unrealistic," Anderson said.

Anderson and Francis theorize that the hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy move in interweaving spirals, which "precess" (rotate backwards) against the rotation of the galaxy, Anderson said.

Instead of being mounted firmly on their galactic pinwheel, he added, the stars accelerate at their furthest point from galactic center, "pop out" of their place on a spiral arm, jump to more distant arms but end up in a different locale on their "native" spiral arm. As they lose momentum, they again jump arms toward the center.

The theory, he noted, replaces the "density wave theory" posited 40 years ago and maintains that the heavily populated arms are "traffic jams" of stars, something like when motorists slow down to watch an accident on the highway, then very slowly speed up again.

"But that had a fundamental problem, because stars have gravity, so in a dense region, they should speed up, not slow down," Anderson said.

Anderson had Ashland artist Melaina Mace execute a new rendering of the Milky Way Galaxy, 100,000 light years wide, as seen from above, with our sun at 12 o'clock about halfway out. Sporting its theoretical double arms, it's at www.astrostudio.org/milkyway.html.

Anderson, 41, built telescopes as a child, then threw himself enthusiastically into computers in the early 1980s.

With friends in Gazelle, Calif. (near Yreka), he was soon writing gaming and other software and operating a company out of their home. He graduated from Shasta Community College and took a year in marketing at Chico State University in order to better sell his software.

With the explosion of the Internet in 1996, Anderson began designing Web sites, something he still does for income. He also became a photojournalist and published many photos in Hot Boat Magazine over a decade.

Without advanced degrees and a prestigious position in astrophysics, Anderson may encounter resistance from experts.

"Some people might be stuck up about it, but I'm always about the issues, not whether someone disrespects me for being self-taught," Anderson said. "It's about the data."

Anderson met Francis four years ago on the Internet and readily acknowledges him to be the genius of the collaboration. Francis' genius is in physics, while Anderson has mastery of computer technology and databases.

"He's taken me to places I never thought I could go in making an entirely new theory of the workings of galaxies," Anderson said.

Quoting German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Anderson noted that "a man of talent (himself) hits a target no one else can hit. Genius (Francis) hits a target no one else can see."

"Anderson compiled data from existing sky surveys on more than 20,000 Milky Way stars with accurately known positions and velocities," said the pair's news release. "By treating orbits as precessing ellipses, Francis found that mutual gravitation naturally leads to orbital alignments that generate spiral patterns."

Anderson describes himself as a man who saves money, lives simply and is looking for grants and grant writers to support his research and to help produce a documentary film explaining the new vision of space.

Scientists trying to unravel the mysteries of the Milky Way lack data on the speed and distance of stars surrounding us, something to be cleared up in the next seven years as the European Space Agency's Gaia astrometric mission accurately maps the near universe.

"In 2017, we'll have a catalog of the whole galaxy, then we'll be able to tell who's right and who's wrong," Anderson said.

To read Anderson and Francis' article, go to http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/465/2111/3425.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.