A laid-back surfer has just drawn up a new theory of the universe that is blowing the establishment’s socks off. His theory is seen by some as the “Holy Grail of physics”, and is earning rave reviews from distinguished scientists. In fact, his model appears to be the elusive overarching explanation to unite all the particles and forces of the cosmos, which has been the most baffling riddle of modern physics—stumping even Einstein.
Garrett Lisi, 39, may be operating outside of the scientific mainstream, but he’s no idiot. In fact, he’s a beach bum with a doctorate degree. But with almost no money, no university affiliation and no real responsibilities, Lisi spends most of his time surfing in Hawaii, where he occasionally does stints as a hiking guide and bridge builder, sleeping in a jungle yurt. In the winter, he spends the majority of his time snowboarding in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
With a lifestyle revolving around riding wave and snow drifts, The Daily Galaxy had one burning question for Lisi: “How on Earth did you have the time to come up with the “Theory of Everything” in between so much snowboarding and surfing?”
Lisi’s chill response was, “I don't watch TV. Miraculously, this gives me plenty of time to surf, contemplate the secrets of the universe, and keep my girlfriend happy.”
But it’s not as if he didn’t put ANY effort into possibly solving the biggest mystery in the entire universe. Lisi admitted to the The Daily Galaxy that, “Between surfing and physics, I alternate days.”
While this kind of life sounds fun—solving the biggest mystery in the universe one day, hitting the waves the next—it does have its downside Lisi points out. "Being poor sucks. It's hard to figure out the secrets of the universe when you're trying to figure out where you and your girlfriend are going to sleep next month."
Fortunately, Lisi pulled it off anyway, and his proposed theory is nothing short of genius. Part of the excitement is that it does not require highly complex mathematics to understand. In the arcane world of particle physics, a simplified theory that actually makes sense, is a fine rarity indeed. Many scientists have speculated through the years that when the “Holy Grail” of physics was found, it would be beautiful, simple and easily understood. “The simplest answer is usually the correct answer,” goes the popular restatement of Occam's razor.
Perhaps even more exciting, Lisi’s theory does not require more than one dimension of time and three of space. Rival theories require ten to twenty-six or more spatial dimensions and other bizarre concepts before they start to become plausible. But what really sets Lisi’s theory apart from the pack is that it appears to be testable! His theory predicts a host of new particles, which could possibly be found using the new Large Hadron Collider atom smasher that will go into action near Geneva next year.
Some are even comparing Garrett Lisi to Albert Einstein. Although his work still has a very long way to go before the establishment would ever approve of that comparison, the two have at least one thing in common: Einstein also began his great adventure in theoretical physics while outside the mainstream scientific establishment. Einstein was working as a patent officer when he developed many of his most exciting theories, although he failed to achieve the “Holy Grail”. Lisi may have picked up where Einstein left off.
Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, describes Lisi's work as "fabulous". "It is one of the most compelling unification models I've seen in many, many years," he says.
"Although he cultivates a bit of a surfer-guy image its clear he has put enormous effort and time into working the complexities of this structure out over several years," Prof Smolin said.
"Some incredibly beautiful stuff falls out of Lisi's theory," adds David Ritz Finkelstein at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. "This must be more than coincidence and he really is touching on something profound."
The new theory reported recently in New Scientist has been laid out in an online paper entitled "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" by Lisi, who completed his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego.
Lisi and others are hopeful that this theory could provide what he calls a "radical new explanation" for the three decade old Standard Model, which weaves together three of the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force; the strong force, which binds quarks together in atomic nuclei; and the weak force, which controls radioactive decay.
Much of the reason for all of the excitement is that Lisi's model also takes account of gravity, a force that has only successfully been included by one other rival theory—the highly fashionable “string theory”. The String Theory proposes that particles are made up of minute strings. Many physicists have been unimpressed with the many complexities of string theory, which make it nearly impossible to test. Even String theorists will admit it’s a near impossible theory to comprehend, let alone explain.
The inspiration behind Lisi's model is something you can actually see. It’s the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 – an eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887. The pattern was only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.
E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional. Lisi said, "I think our universe is this beautiful shape."
What makes E8 so exciting is that Nature also seems to have embedded it at the heart of many bits of physics. One interpretation of why we have such a quirky list of fundamental particles is because they all result from different facets of the strange symmetries of E8.
Lisi's breakthrough came when he noticed that some of the equations describing E8's structure matched his own. "My brain exploded with the implications and the beauty of the thing," he tells New Scientist. "I thought: 'Holy crap, that's it!'"
What Lisi had realized was that he could find a way to place the various elementary particles and forces on E8's 248 points. What remained were 20 gaps, which he filled with notional particles, for example those that some physicists predict to be associated with gravity.
Physicists have long puzzled over why elementary particles appear to belong to families, but this arises naturally from the geometry of E8, he says. So far, all the interactions predicted by the complex geometrical relationships inside E8 match seamlessly with observations in the real world. "How cool is that?" he says.
Pretty damn cool, actually. We’ll just have to see how it pans out. Could a beach bum really come up with the answer to the biggest question in the universe? Some fellow physicists say there is no way, and are calling Lisi a “crackpot” and worse. But maybe they’re just jealous they didn’t think of it first. Or maybe they’re just bitter about the possibility that they’ve spent the last 30 years glued to their calculators in vain, while this guy was out catching waves. Yeah, that’s got to hurt.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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