Garrett Lisi doesn't fit the image of your average physicist, and neither do his theories. Bucking the trend that has named strings as the building blocks of life, Lisi instead believes that the "theory of everything" springs from a geometric figure called E8.
Here, Lisi goes off the cuff to talk about E8, the Tick, the scientific community, and his surfer pals.
Q: Who are your heroes?
A: The Tick.
Q: How would you describe the Theory of Everything (aka "E8 Theory") to the man on the street?
A: I wouldn't. That's all the world needs -- more people approaching you on the street to describe their Theory of Everything and ask for spare change.
Over a coffee, I'd describe it as a theory describing all existing particles and their interactions as facets of a beautiful geometric shape moving over space-time.
Q: Could you describe your "eureka" moment, i.e., when you first began to see E8 as the fabric of our universe?
A: Well, I didn't run naked down the street shouting "Eureka!" like Archimedes -- there was too much snow.
I did wander around my living room, staring into space and bumping into furniture, marveling at the hundreds of coincidences pointing to this one beautiful mathematical object. After a few minutes, I decided it would be good to write it up as a paper. Ironic that I still react like an academic, even after escaping the ivory tower.
Q: Why do you think the universe must be "beautiful" at base level?
A: The universe is beautiful at every level. As we have discovered each more fundamental level of objects and their interactions -- at smaller and smaller scales -- their descriptions have gotten simpler, but more foreign to our human scale of existence. It is rather egotistical to presume we are nearing a complete understanding of the universe, but it's encouraging that things keep getting simpler. So it might not be turtles all the way down.
Q: You have said that it might be possible to test your theory using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator currently being constructed in Geneva, Switzerland. Can you explain how?
A: The most likely outcome from the LHC is detection of a single Higgs particle. This Higgs is required to break the unified symmetry of electroweak forces into the separate electromagnetic and weak forces we see. This E8 Theory agrees with the existence of such a Higgs. Some theories also favor the existence of particles associated with supersymmetry, strings or new dimensions. If any of these are seen at the LHC, they will disagree with this E8 Theory, which predicts just a handful of new, colored Higgs particles. If a bunch of superparticles are seen, it will mean this new theory is wrong ... and I will have to pay some bets.
Q: What advantages does your approach have over rival theories such as string theory?
A: There are 100 percent fewer strings.
Q: How does your theory link gravity to the other fundamental forces of nature (e.g., electromagnetism, strong and weak forces)?
A: This E8 Theory describes gravity the same way it describes the other forces, as part of a single, complicated shape twisting over our four-dimensional space-time, consistent with its curvature. It is unusual to describe gravity this way, instead of using space-time distances, but it is mathematically equivalent to Einstein's formulation of General Relativity.
Q: Are mathematics involved in surfing?
A: Mathematics are involved with everything.
Q: Do you tend to gravitate toward surfers or scientists?
A: Scientists tend to be larger, but surfers are more dense.
Q: How has the scientific community reacted to your theory?
A: The reaction was even better than I hoped. Physicists at conferences were interested enough to invite me to visit and give other talks. Many students e-mailed me as well, which is great, since they're the future. But a lot of physicists were turned off when this E8 Theory, and my personal story, started getting hyped in the media. I've tried to use the attention in a way that's good for science, by describing how beautiful and interesting physics is -- something that's true whether this E8 Theory turns out to be true about nature or not.