Surfer-Physicist's Unified Theory Leads to Fame, Backlash

By Kim Zetter Email 02.27.08
A. Garrett Lisi has largely avoided traditional academic appointments, preferring to do his physics research in between surfing, snowboarding and working odd jobs.
Photo: Courtesy A. Garrett Lisi

Freelance physicist A. Garrett Lisi made headlines last year when he published his "Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" to an online wiki. The theory purports to be a blueprint of the universe, showing how all of the particles and forces of the universe are connected.

Lisi, who is speaking at the TED conference in Monterey, California this week, rejects string theory -- currently the dominant model of the universe. Instead, his unification theory places all known particles and the four fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetic, the strong force, the weak force and gravity) onto an exceptionally complex 248-point mathematical model known as E8 that was formulated in the late 19th century. Lisi's schema uses 228 points of the model, with 20 points left over for what he predicts will belong to 20 as-yet-undiscovered particles. His theory met with enthusiastic media coverage, but to date, the scientific community has been far more skeptical about the validity of Lisi's model.

Lisi left academia after obtaining his Ph.D. in 1999, and since then has been working odd jobs to support himself while spending the rest of his time working on physics, surfing and snowboarding. interviewed him by e-mail before his appearance.

Wired: Your entire career has been focused, in essence, on your rejection of string theory. What do you have against strings and extra dimensions?

Garrett Lisi: It's more accurate to say my career (or, often, lack of one) has been focused on doing what I wanted. There are a lot of good things about string theory, and it's great that some people want to work on it. But, to me, it seemed too disconnected from real particle physics and gravitation. It seemed unlikely that many of these string constructions could ever be experimentally tested, or connected up with the real world. So I set off to follow my own interests.

Wired: Please explain in layman's terms why the gravitational force fits this model when it has so resolutely resisted fitting other models except, presumably, string theory?

Lisi: The way gravity fits came from recent research in the Quantum Gravity community. This research provided a framework in which gravity could be treated as one of the other three forces, while still agreeing with Einstein's general relativity. When this was combined with a description of the Higgs field, it all fell into place perfectly. I was shocked to see it work so well; but that shock quickly diffused into excitement, which then congealed into a physics paper.

Wired: If your theory is proven correct, what will the implications be? What will we know about the universe and how it works other than that its structure is incredibly beautiful and ordered?

Lisi: For me, it would be enough to know that the fundamental structure of the universe is incredibly beautiful. I don't think there would be any practical implications within our lifetime. (Physicist Richard) Feynman put it the best when he said: "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

Related Topics: