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How a Surfer Dude Stunned the World of Science With the 'Theory of Everything'

Surfer_4 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_2 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

Related Galaxy posts:

"The Elegant Universe" -A Galaxy Insight
New, Revised Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
"42": Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Foreshadows Actual Weight of Universe!
CERN's Search for the 'Holy Grail of Physics' Set to Go Live Next Spring
Weird Science: Can Time Move Backwards?
Neutron Stars: New Discovery Proves Einstein's Space-Time Predictions
The Biological Universe -A New Copernican Revolution?
"Lord of the Rings" -Europe's Galactic Machine
The God Particle -The Holy Grail of Physics: has it been found?
Search for the "God Particle"




"...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."

Especially if he manages to catch gravitational waves too

Hi Rebecca.

This is a very nice article.

If I may suggest, some parts are very similar to the (anterior) article of Roger Highfield, Science Editor of The Telegraph: you should make it explicit to avoid being accused of plagiarism. Also, to be complete, you should give references to who compares Lisi to Einstein, and of the date at which you interviewed Lisi ("The Daily Galaxy had one burning question for Lisi (...) Lisi’s chill response was (...)"), since some of your other quotes are also similar to the article from Highfield.

I enjoy your posts as they gather on one single website the type of news I like, but the experience would be even better if you referenced better your work...

Just to mention: I could not use the third url as such in your article (when it is the link to the article the most similar to yours), so I post it here in the comments, where it seems to create a (much more useful) direct link even when the url is not fully visible:

JyBy, thanks for your comment. The Telegraph article was one of my sources for background information on Lisi's fascinating discovery, which is why I provided a link to it. I'm not sure why the link is cut off. I agree I could have done a better job in this particular case of citing my sources. I appreciate you pointing that out.

Lisi seems like a really incredible person. The Telegraph article, and others, made it sound like he is constantly surfing or snowboarding, which simply isn't the case. He sure does a lot more of it than your average physicist- no argument there. However, from what he shared with me, he spends at least half of his time immersed in theoretical physics as well, which is obviously something he is equally passionate about. The fact that he had virtually no support or affiliation with any established scientific venues while working out the details of this promising theory only makes his achievement all that more impressive. At any rate, it's a very exciting discovery, and I hope it pans out. Personally, I'm getting sick of all these various multiple universe theories. It may well be fact, but I'd like to see a model that can explain OUR universe first.

A short google search on the guy turns up several physicists bloggers who claim Lisi is a fraud and his paper is full of basic faults. I am no physicists, so i can't judge their position myself. Anyone knows what's up?

Here's one blog for example: http://motls.blogspot.com/2007/11/exceptionally-simple-theory-of.html

He's not a fraud. His paper got published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal. His theory may not end up being correct, but that doesn't make him a fraud. It probably just makes the "establishment" angry that some unemployed surfer can show them all up! Ha!

Here is what Lisi replied to the post bitterly (an incorrectly) calling his research unscientific:

"Lubos' post is a hoot!

First he makes two statements that are blatantly wrong, and uses these to justify saying there's no physics in the paper. Then he attacks the physics in the paper. Heh.

His only rational attack is based on the Coleman-Mandula theorem, the abstract of which he kindly provides a link to, but evidently didn't read, since the first assumption of the C-M theorem is stated there in the abstract, and doesn't apply in the case at hand, as stated in the paper. The only other arguments he employs are ad hominem, based on my association with other non-string researchers who I am proud to call colleagues.

I couldn't have asked Lubos to write a more helpful critique, as it fails in its goal of tearing down the paper, while confirming just how different this E8 theory is from string theory."

His paper certainly didn't get published. The Internet archive is not peer-reviewed. Moreover, his paper has been moved from the hep-th archive where physicists submit their articles to the gen-ph archive dedicated to the general ideas of laymen.

The paper is full of completely basic errors and misconceptions.

OK, "Physicist" If Lisi's model is so flawed then why are well-respected physicists putting their necks on the line with statements like:
"It is one of the most compelling unification models I've seen in many, many years."
~ Lee Smolin,Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics


"This must be more than coincidence and he really is touching on something profound."
~ David Ritz Finkelstein, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta

Let me guess, you're a bitter string theorist that knows your funding will dry up if anyone catches on that there are much better theories out there- theories that can describe the universe without resorting to untestable, arbitrary, and fanciful ideas like there are 10 dimensions, no wait...you guys are already up to 26 dimensions, aren't you, solely because your math doesn't make any sense unless you start making up random dimensions...

String theory may be "hot" right now simply because it's so full of buzz words that you don't have to deal with the fact that there's no proof or substance to it. Many reputable theorists agree that String Theory is so full of holes that it borders on ridiculous. So go figure.

Perhaps this argument can be best described by famed physicist Wolfgang Pauli who said of String theory: "It's not even wrong." Meaning that its so stupid in the first place that calling it wrong would almost be a compliment! String theory not only makes absolutely no predictions about physical phenomena at experimentally accessible energies, it makes no precise predictions whatsoever!

So, I say anyone who can come up with any alternative has my full support. They may be wrong too, but wrong is a lot better than "not even wrong" in my book! Ha.

I wonder what people said about Einstein's ideas when he was just an unknown patent clerk. I bet more than one person told him his ideas were full of "completely basic errors and misconceptions".

Thank goodness he didn't listen. I hope Lisi doesn't listen to naysayers either and keeps developing this fascinating theory.

I have nothing against the guy or his theory. I certainly lack the tools to make any statement to either side. All I wanted to point out is that his theory is apparently still disputed and maybe this fact should've been stressed in the article.


Interesting Article.

We've featured it in The Issue, a recently launched Blog Newspaper.

You can find a link in the Science&Health Section this weekend at www.TheIssue.com.

We handpick some of the top posts across the Blog-o-sphere to provide a daily online newspaper.

JB Cossart

Science&Health|The Issue

Hey, R DeHart, do you even realize that all Theories are in dispute and constantly tested and re-tested until proven to be Fact, or not ?

This particular mans Theory happens to have an awful lot of Theologians pretty excited about this man's particular theory, don't you think ?

And you, knowing almost nothing about this man or his theory, beyond a short article and a quick google search, have to come on here and berate this man ?
I hope you don't treat your wife and family that way too....

Where can one read this funky theory?

Hey Bruce B! Signatures for the comments are BELOW the comments. I believe you were addressing a comment by RoyK.

Einstein is looking down from heaven saying "Well done....Dude!".

P.S. Garrett, hope your efforts bring you a good roof over your head!

this is a great article on the thoughts of the guys theory. not on the theory.

You know, I think I actually saw this guy once in Kihei. Who knew I was near greatness? And there I was, thinking I was the smartest guy on the beach. . .

Here is the paper:

I'm a chemist, so I can't speak to more of the esoteric bits of unification. However, looking through the paper, it seems like Lisi has done nothing more than arrange different forces and particles onto a kaleidoscope diagram and inferred some relationships between particles when you twist the diagram.

The two critiques I hear of string theory are
a) there is no way to falsify it.
b) all the added dimensions are a bit silly

I have seen no test that can confirm this idea of all fundamental particles + another 20 particles he made up being the sides of a 57 dimensional object is something that can be tested. and for the other critique....did I mention it's a 57 dimensional object?

Unless you can make some predictions with this theory, like why gravity is so weak or how things interact at the center of a black hole, this will be a half baked theory.

I saw this on slashdot recently. What's amazing about this theory is that it is testable: it predicts new particles that we will have the ability to look for with equipment that is already under construction.

Maybe a person who actually knows some - a little physics or math - should of written this review. What the hell is this comment about calculators? What kind of physicist or mathematician is glued to a calculator? This is the idiotic image that most people have of mathematical scientists. You are mistaking us for accountants...and they don't even do that!

you guys are stupid. he didnt invent anything. he harnessed previously existing ideas and just linked them without proof. also, your editorial is awful. i recommend taking a writing class or two. i would go into it more, but nahh...too busy actually being in school, instead of surfing or writing bad articles about surfing.

I am open minded and interested in Mr Lisi's theory. Unfortunately there was so little fact in the article that I came away frustrated.

+1 on having the writer learn to write.

If you're interested on good science writing read Brian Green. The theories he talks about may be right, may be proven wrong at some future time, but you can actually understand what's being proposed. This is just fluff.

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