Digital Publisher of the Year | Friday 13 November 2009 | Science feed


Surfer dude's theory of everything: the magic of Garrett Lisi

The Big Idea: Roger Highfield explains why Garrett Lisi, the surfer who drew up a 'theory of everything' to explain the universe, is a great role model for science.


Of all the stories I've written in recent years, the most popular by far bore the intriguing headline: "Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything." It described how an American, Garrett Lisi, had unveiled a new way to unite the laws and particles of the universe, in a paper entitled An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.

I first picked up on the waves this unlikely figure was making in the scientific community when I read an article in New Scientist by Zeeya Merali. My take on the story broke in The Daily Telegraph in November 2007, and has since been viewed more than a million times on Only a few weeks ago, it was back at the top of the website's chart.

So why all the interest? Partly, because Lisi claimed to have found the answer to probably the most important question in science: how to find a coherent model of the universe that works on scales both very large (addressed by Einstein's theory of general relativity) and the very small (dealt with by quantum physics).

His take on it rested on an extraordinary mathematical object called E8, a complex shape described by a pattern of 248 points in eight dimensions, with a structure that, if written out as an equation in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan. It filled 20 gaps in the conventional theories with new particles, which seemed to arise naturally from the geometry of E8. As soon as he spotted this, he declared: "Holy crap, that's it!"

The ideas were described as "fabulous" by Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada. David Ritz Finkelstein, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, added that "some incredibly beautiful stuff falls out of Lisi's theory".

Much of the excitement was because Lisi's theory seemed to challenge string theory – the dominant contender for a "theory of everything", over which there has been a bitter intellectual war. Its proponents (mostly superstar theorists) argue that the theory, which relies on tiny, subatomic "strings" vibrating across multiple dimensions, is too beautiful to be ignored. But there are detractors, from Smolin, who launched a scathing attack in a book called The Trouble with Physics, to doubters, such as Steven Weinberg, a Nobel prizewinner.

However, the dude had his critics, too. Prof Marcus du Sautoy, of Oxford University, said it was time to knock Lisi off his board, pointing out the ways physics blogs dissected his work. He, and many others, remain unconvinced.

Yet even if Lisi is wrong – as is usually the case with attempts to erect such all-encompassing theories – the world needs more surfer dudes. Lisi's effort captured the public imagination because, though the then 39-year-old had a doctorate, he did not work in the establishment, but was backed by a little money from a privately funded research institute called FQXi. We need more independent spirits like him, and others outside the mainstream, such as James Lovelock, the maverick environmentalist.

Lisi is also a great role model for science, in that he shatters the stereotype of a nerd. While he worked on his theory, he spent most of the year surfing in Hawaii, where he lived in a yurt. In winter, he headed to the mountains near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where he would snowboard. He was so attractive a figure that TV companies lined up to film him and literary agents scrambled to sell the story of his struggle to comprehend the cosmos. A Hollywood executive said there was "great potential for a feature film".

No wonder that today, Lisi says things are going "more or less fantastically well". He is now trying to use axions (theoretical particles proposed by the Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek) to describe how particles get their masses. And he is organising an E8 Theory conference with the backing of the American Institute of Mathematics. He feels like he, and others, are on "the right track", and hopes that some of the particles he predicts might be detected by the Large Hadron Collider, the vast atom-smasher that is about to go into action in Geneva.

And, as well as pursuing his theory, Lisi is working on a film about young scientists who combine cutting-edge research with adventure sports. He maintains his appetite for both physical and intellectual adrenalin, and tells me: "I've been spending every other day surfing or kitesurfing here in Maui." No wonder his peers are jealous.

Roger Highfield is the Editor of 'New Scientist'

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Comments: 17

  • How about in 41 words?
    The knowledge we may gather on issues of being, consciousness and reality, likely is delineable by means of a single, universal, fractal-holographic and evolutionary process based on the unfolding and interaction of indeterminate prime numbers of identifiable classes, components and polarities.
    That is it.

    on November 13, 2009
    at 01:12 PM
  • How about in 41 words?
    "The knowledge we may gather on issues of being, consciousness and reality, likely is delineable by means of a single, universal, fractal-holographic and evolutionary process based on the unfolding and interaction of indeterminate prime numbers of identifiable classes, components and polarities."
    That's it.

    on November 13, 2009
    at 12:23 PM
  • Yes, dr3w, that was the point. It is entirely impossible to provide any sort of analysis in 500 words (as Mark Russell Bell wanted). What I wrote is satire and sarcasm. I hope you got a taste, you chugged it fast and didn't even chew to enjoy it's flavor. Some people also call this: hook, line, and sinker.

    on November 13, 2009
    at 07:03 AM
  • kaleidoscope and dope.
    love it.

    on November 13, 2009
    at 12:16 AM
  • @ Mark Russell Bell
    This is a theory of physics, not metaphysics. Your criticism is irrelevant, not to mention, also not based on real science.

    on November 12, 2009
    at 04:30 PM
  • Yeah! I agree with Mark Russell Bell! This glib little article and short illustrative video don't explain the vast complexities of our known universe. What sort of journalistic slop are we being fed here? I come to Telegraph for one thing and one thing only: comprehensive scientific explanations of how our universe functions in 500 words or less. Way to drop the ball Telegraph.

    on November 12, 2009
    at 04:12 PM
  • Everyone reading this needs to look at some papers by Miles Mathis

    His unified field theory is light years beyond anything string theory can ever attempt to offer, and he finds such startling mistakes in basic theoretical physics that it makes you wonder how we ever launched rockets into space successfully.

    Seriously, read his stuff.

    on November 12, 2009
    at 03:06 PM
  • I am in the process of studying my PhD in theoretical physics.

    I must admit to not having read his paper ( in detail but glancing at it, all he seems to have done is attribute known particles to point of the E8 (which is 248 dimensional by the way, and has RANK 8) root diagram which has been known for years and invented loads more particles to fill up the rest of the space.

    on November 11, 2009
    at 07:23 PM
  • Your article is suggesting that the dude simply had a good crack at a unified theory and didn't succeed because most new proposals don't succeed (hence the praise for that which follows).

    However, I seem to recall that the problem with his physics was not so much that he was presenting bold conjecture, but that he was making very basic physics mistakes, such as equating a vector with a scalar, for example. These are the online dissections you are referring to.

    Getting elementary, well established maths incorrect is not the same as being creative. Being bold is one thing, but you need to understand basic physics before you release your creativity, not afterwards. Just because Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge does not mean that knowledge is not a prerequisite.

    W. Lockhart
    on November 11, 2009
    at 04:11 PM
  • take three pyramids, meld together, voila

    on November 11, 2009
    at 06:22 AM
  • The article and short video don't explain the universe. I think it is more meaningful to recognize that all living things are continuously interacting with an intermediary Superconsciousness or Spiritual Force that may be recognized through circumstances often described as coincidences and synchronicity, intuition and telepathy, prophetic dreams and visions, mediumship and trance channeling, healing, as well as events associated with such expressions as 'hauntings,' 'talking poltergeists' and 'electronic voice phenomena' . . . Such expressions as 'Oneness' and 'Christ Consciousness' are also useful.

    Mark Russell Bell
    on November 11, 2009
    at 06:20 AM
  • Besides the possibility of uniting relativity with quantum physics, Lisi's theory is especially compelling to those who hope the universe is an elegant and orderly place. The geometry of the E8 Polytope is exquisitely beautiful. If nothing else, Lisi deserves kudos for acquainting us with that beautiful 8 dimensional object.

    Wizard Gynoid
    on November 10, 2009
    at 06:53 PM
  • Speaking of independent academics, there's also Julian Barbour, whose book "The End of Time" has entertained me on and off over the past decade.

    Whether it's right or not, haven't a clue, but it's intriguing.

    on November 10, 2009
    at 04:26 PM
  • In just the same way that Ivor Catt has developed Electromagnetic Theory but has not yet been awarded a Nobel Prize. Peer review kills advancement.

    John Raymond Dore
    on November 10, 2009
    at 02:25 PM
  • Sweet.

    on November 10, 2009
    at 01:16 PM
  • The problem with Lisi's paper is he does not mention quantization.

    on November 10, 2009
    at 12:59 PM
  • I understood nothing after 0:22.

    HAL 9000
    on November 10, 2009
    at 10:45 AM

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