Posted on Nov 17, 2007

The archetype of the lone scientist, then and now.


In 1905, a mysterious stranger appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and proposed to overturn conventional physics. He had no academic affiliation. Almost no one had heard of him. He was a lowly patent clerk. Yet he audaciously claimed that light was both particle and wave, that space and time were malleable, and that matter and energy were essentially the same.

After this mysterious fellow, Albert Einstein, had wreaked his havoc, hardly anyone thought such a thing could happen again in physics – the lone outsider riding into town, working wonders where conventional minds had failed, and living happily ever after in a bright haze of global adulation.

One reason was that the society of scientists that had grown up around Einstein’s theories had become, ironically, even less receptive to outsiders than it had been in Einstein’s day.

The physics elaborated by this society also had drifted into arcane realms, farther and farther from public apprehension. As the science writer John Horgan put it two years ago:

Many of physics’ best and brightest are obsessed with fulfilling a task that occupied Einstein’s latter years: finding a “unified theory” that fuses quantum physics and general relativity, which are as incompatible, conceptually and mathematically, as plaid and polka dots. But pursuers of this “theory of everything” have wandered into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality.

Despite Horgan’s point, I believe Einstein had more going for him than the fact that his theories were relatively accessible. He had an appealing personality. He gave the public what it wanted. He gave us the archetypes of genius, from the Plucky Outsider to the Kindly Old Sage. To probably 95 percent of the people who have ever revered Einstein, he has been little more than a celebrity – a genius because other people said so, and because he looked the part, not because he ever demonstrated it in a way a layman could understand. (Ditto for Richard Feynman and his bongo drums.)

All of which helps to explain, I think, the hoopla now surrounding A. Garrett Lisi, a surfer and snowboarder with no academic affiliation (and, it seems, no fixed address) who just might be making as big a splash as Einstein did – and by doing what Einstein failed to do, namely to unify general relativity and the standard model of particle physics, in a way that is conceptually not too arcane.

On November 6th, Lisi sent to a popular online pre-print archive,, a paper titled “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” I quote from the Daily Telegraph, which was one of the first to cover all this (after New Scientist, which broke the story ):

Lisi’s inspiration lies in the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 – a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan….  Lisi says “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 realised 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 with observations in the real world. “How cool is that?” he says.

Dude, it is way cool. But let’s face it, what’s even cooler about the theory, in the popular mind, is that it was invented by an invented by an unemployed surfer. “Surfer Dude Stuns Physicists with Theory of Everything” was the Telegraph’s headline, above a photo of the guy riding a wave. The piece has been pegged to the top of the most e-mailed list ever since it appeared. “Laid Back Surfer Dude May be Next Einstein,” announced Fox News, following the Telegraph‘s lead.

From the “surfer-dude” photos of himself that Lisi has made available on the web and to the press, it seems that he deliberately cultivates this image of a super-cool wandering genius-surfer. On his C.V., freely available on his website, he includes “Hiking Guide, Maui Eco Adventures,” and “Snowboarding Instructor, Breckenridge, Colorado,” among his teaching experiences. In a recent e-mail interview for a physics blog, he noted that “mostly I spend time in Maui because it”s beautiful and the surf is good,” and “surfing really nice waves is simply the most fun one can have on this planet.”

In fact, Lisi was an outstanding undergrad at UCLA, winning the Kinsey Prize for the best graduating senior physics student. He went on to do his PhD at UCSD, winning two fellowships, and although he soon quit academic physics because of its bias towards string theory, he has been working in the field, and publishing papers, for almost a decade and a half.

In a way, his lifestyle choice is perfectly rational:

We have these big brains, and a limited amount of time. So what to do? A lot of people spend their time making money, sometimes with the hope that they’ll be able to do what they want after they make it. But you never get that time back. Theoretical physics is the most abstractly beautiful and challenging pursuit there is. It’s what I want to spend my time thinking about, so that’s what I do…  But all thinking and no action would make for a dull life. So I surf.  A lot.

Lisi’s work on E8 also doesn”t come out of the blue. In the 1950s the future Nobel winner, Murray Gell-Mann, used a less complex geometry known as SU(3) to predict the existence of the “omega-minus” particle, which was later confirmed. And earlier this year, after mathematical physicists number-crunched the structure of E8, it was anticipated that the results would be useful in predicting new fundamental particles and generally in determining the fine structure of the cosmos. In a sense, Lisi was merely the first to capitalize on an opportunity that was in plain sight.

In any case, notwithstanding the talk of geometry and beauty and simplicity, the concept of E8 symmetries and Lisi”s work on it are going to be hardly more accessible to the popular mind than string theory. For a taste of what E8 is all about, check out its page on wikipedia, from which I have taken this relatively digestible sample:

The compact real form of E8 is the isometry group of a 128-dimensional Riemannian manifold known informally as the ”octo-octonionic projective plane” because it can be built using an algebra that is the tensor product of the octonions with themselves. This can be seen systematically using… [etc.]

Lisi’s theory, which predicts at least 20 new particles, may be confirmed by experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in the next year or two. If it is, Lisi’s laid-back, have-surfboard- will-travel image will probably become as iconic as that old photo of Einstein with his tongue hanging out. That’s because surfing is something we can all understand. Wacky creativity we can understand too. To some extent, we can understand even the beauty of E8, or at any rate its humble 2D shadow (see below).

But the rest we’ll pretty much have to take on faith.