Close your eyes and picture the universe. Not in some esoteric, “woah dude” sense—really try to conjure the shape of it, the curves and geometric contours of, well, everything. Impossible, right? Not in the mind of Garrett Lisi.
In 1999, Lisi earned a PhD in physics from UC San Diego. That was the moment most people would have pursued further studies, angled for a tenured teaching position or tried to land a lucrative private-sector job. Instead, Lisi uprooted his life, took what savings he had and moved to Maui to live in a customized van.
He made the decision for a number of reasons. One was his dissatisfaction with string theory, which has dominated the world of theoretical physics for years. Another was his desire to get outside the restrictive confines of academia. But mostly, he just wanted to surf.
Lisi is a self-described geek (which, he explains, is different from “nerd” and “dweeb” in that the former is socially awkward and the latter has no special interests or skills). But he’s also a genuine waterman, addicted to the waves. “In the water is where I’m most happy,” he says flatly, in the presence of his girlfriend, Crystal Baranyk (he adds that he’s also very happy with Crystal, after a not-quite-awkward pause). Baranyk is an artist whose vibrant nature paintings adorn the walls of the couple’s two-bedroom rental in Kula. She stuck with Lisi through the van-living days, and says it was “a good test for the relationship.”
Asked to choose between physics and the ocean, Lisi balks. “I’d never make that choice,” he says. “I have to have both.” He has to have the ocean because it gives him joy. He has to have physics because he’s trying to solve what he calls “the greatest puzzle there is.”
In 2008, Lisi sent ripples through the scientific community when he co-authored a paper for Scientific American—along with physicist James Weatherall—titled “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”
Almost immediately, the blogosphere lit up with intense, at times vitriolic debate. Soon after, newspapers and magazines came calling, intrigued by the story of the science-genius surf bum and his big idea.
“I’d been working on this stuff for 10 years. I’d put out a paper every couple years, and usually get five or six e-mails,” says Lisi. “Instead, I woke up to a Pandora’s inbox.”
Feedback ranged from constructive criticism to bitter attacks. Lubos Motl, a Czech string theorist, blasted Lisi’s idea as “a huge joke” and “a long sequence of childish misunderstandings” in a blog post accompanied by a crudely Photoshopped image of Lisi on the beach with hundreds of bikini-clad babes. “Basically everything he said was either false or addressed in [the paper],” Lisi says of Motl. “It was hilarious. He’s a nut.”
The criticism wasn’t all so inflammatory. Writing for Scientific American after the magazine published Lisi’s paper, Graham Collins conceded the theory “sounds like an incredible discovery” but suggested there are “a few Jurassic-size flies in the ointment.”
Lisi acknowledges the theory is flawed. “It isn’t complete—and it may be incomplete in a way that’s difficult to figure out,” he says. However, he adds, he has “an unusually high confidence” that E8 Theory is at least “going toward a correct description of the universe.”
Asked whether the personal swipes bother him, Lisi shrugs. “I’m a surfer,” he says. “Surfers are without question more vicious and competitive [than physicists]. It’s like, ‘Come on guys, I’m used to seeing fist fights break out. You’re talking about an argument on the Internet—how intimidated am I going to be?’”
With his shaved head and smooth, symmetrical features, Lisi resembles a freckled mannequin. His eyes, appropriately, are the color of the ocean in the midst of a swell. His voice is clipped yet vaguely rhythmic; his words spill out quickly, though he sometimes pauses in strange places, as if struggling to shoehorn complex mathematical concepts into the crude, imprecise confines of language. He isn’t condescending—his stabs at humility seem mostly genuine, if occasionally rehearsed—but he speaks with the innate confidence of someone who grasps things most people can’t.
The first time we meet, it’s over Thai food at the Maui Mall. He walks in wearing a T-shirt; on the front are dozens of colorful shapes arranged in a series of concentric circles connected by a spiderweb of thin lines.
I don’t realize what I’m looking at until I ask Lisi to explain his exceptionally simple theory in the kind of exceptionally simple terms a math-challenged writer might understand. “It’s right here,” he says, pointing to the shirt.
In essence, Lisi posits that there is a shape to the universe, a mathematical structure called E8 (the shape on the shirt, and an example of a Lie group, named after 19th century Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie). All the known elementary particles—and their interactions—are part of the structure, along with some particles that have yet to be discovered. The reason E8 Theory is potentially revolutionary is that it accounts for all four of the fundamental forces: electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force and, most notably, gravity.
“Einstein described gravity as the curvature of space-time—that’s a very geometric concept,” says Lisi. “You’re talking about a warping fabric, and describing gravity as how that space-time is warping. And it works perfectly to describe almost everything going on in our universe. But it doesn’t have anything special to say about matter. It’s a very concise, succinct description of gravitation. You can throw in matter and it works OK, but you don’t really get any insight into how matter works.” Lisi says the takeaway is that Einstein offered “a basic geometric description of how fundamental forces in the universe are working.” And, he concludes, “if this part of the universe is geometric, and we only have one universe, then the whole universe should be geometric.”
That idea ultimately led Lisi to E8. He was in Tahoe at a friend’s house, scribbling equations in the wee hours, when the proverbial light bulb went off. “I had all this algebra laid out for the way things were interacting and it looked like sort of a coherent, single algebra—like it might be part of something larger,” he remembers. “On a whim I decided to see if all this algebra fit into something else. I started trying things, and ended up trying E8. And everything fit perfectly. It was absolutely astonishing. You don’t get too many moments like that.”
“He was beaming,” says Baranyk, who was sleeping in the next room and woke up to find Lisi excitedly checking his math. Soon after, Lisi immersed himself in everything E8.
“A lot of people look at this and say, ‘Well there’s this pretty E8 pattern and he’s using it to say some things about particle physics and gravity,’” he says. “But that’s not the way I found it. I put together the most succinct description I could of particle physics and gravity, and once I had this structure I had this wild idea that maybe there’s a chance it could embed in something larger.”
The wild idea worked, at least for now. Will it hold up? One important test is coming soon, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the much-discussed particle accelerator in Switzerland that many hope will answer some of physics’ most nagging questions.
“There are 248 elementary particles according to E8 Theory, and there are a couple hundred that we know exist,” says Lisi. “But there are other particles that E8 predicts and we don’t know if they exist or not. As [the LHC] runs, it could either find particles that are predicted by E8 or not. If it finds particles that aren’t in this theory, then the theory is screwed.”
Lisi says he has a couple of outstanding bets—one for $1,000, one for a margarita—about whether the LHC will discover something called superparticles, a key piece to the string theorists’ puzzle that would also put a serious dent in E8. “If superparticles are found, this E8 Theory is either wrong or it’s going to require serious revision,” says Lisi. “But I don’t think they’re going to find them.”
When Lisi discusses string theory, disdain drips off his words. He even compares it to religion—perhaps the ultimate scientific insult—though he later adds that he “doesn’t want to openly offend other physicists, many of whom I respect.”
For Lisi, string theory is a once-interesting idea that has gone off the rails, a dead end that scientists continue to chase because they are too invested in their work to pull out. “String theorists thought they were going to have everything figured out within five or ten years and physics was going to be wrapped up—but it didn’t happen,” he says. “So their models got more and more convoluted to try to connect with reality.”
Lisi says the ongoing emphasis on string theory, at the expense of other lines of inquiry, has put “physics in crisis.”
“Things have gone out on a limb of model-building, where they’re very detached from experimental data,” he says. “When that happens, it’s a free-for-all. You have all these different models and then you have competing models. And once you have competing models without experimental data, then it’s who can yell the loudest and get the most popularity. It’s very questionable whether that’s good science anymore.”
So why doesn’t Lisi want to help fix the system? He does—in his own, typically unconventional way. He taught for a time at UH Maui College, and was offered a tenured position, but turned it down because he wanted the freedom to work on his own projects and, of course, surf. (Since leaving UH, Lisi has subsisted mostly off grants from the Foundational Questions Institute, or FQXi, an organization that seeks to “catalyze, support and disseminate research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology.”)
While he’s intentionally, almost willfully disconnected himself from academia, Lisi wants to interact with other scientists. The Internet is his main outlet, but he also attends symposiums and delivered an address at the 2008 TED Conference, which helped propel his theory into the mainstream. And he’s working on something he calls “science hostels.”
“Physicists like to travel a lot, but there aren’t really a lot of places where they can go and work on their own ideas,” he explains. “One thing I came to was this idea of a network of small science institutes, where scientists can spend time working and enjoying the beautiful environment for small or large amounts of time—anywhere from a few days to a few months.” Lisi says his natural attraction to places like Maui and Tahoe—where there are plenty of vacant vacation homes—has allowed the idea to blossom into reality.
“Science is extremely valuable to society, and most people know that and feel they should be nice to scientists,” says Lisi. “This is a direct and personal way for the public to offer support, to create a connection between people who have resources and the scientists who can benefit from them.”
The second time I sit down with Lisi it’s at his home in Kula. A recent surfing accident split open his upper lip, meaning stitches, a break from the waves and, thus, more time for physics. (It also meant delays for a European film crew that flew to Maui to shoot footage of Lisi for a documentary about the LHC.)
After sandwiches, soup and homemade ice cream (which Lisi calls his “only vice”), we move into the living room so he can show me the Elementary Particle Explorer. It’s an interactive application on his Web site (garrettlisi.com) where scientists—and anyone else who’s interested—can play with particle interactions within various Lie groups, including E8.
Like most things Lisi describes, I can skim the surface of the Particle Explorer. I appreciate its bright colors and spinning shapes, and I understand—or at least think I understand—the basic, underpinning concept. I don’t understand the equations Lisi has written in neat rows on a piece of paper next to his computer (it’s one of the few pieces of paper in the house; Lisi has “completely digitized” his life). But mostly, I still don’t quite get the point.
If the universe has a shape—whether that shape is E8 or something else—and someone discovers it—whether that someone is Garrett Lisi or someone else—what will it mean? Will anything change?
I ask Lisi this, and he smiles. He contemplates for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “Other than a sense of personal satisfaction, no—it wouldn’t change my life.” That’s a direct refutation to those who claim Lisi and other unification theorists are seeking God. Lisi, an atheist, says the whole notion of God misses the point. He’s not after the creator of the universe—he’s after the universe itself. Everything.
I ask whether he hopes that one day his name will be synonymous with genius, like Einstein. “My life’s weird enough as it is,” he replies. “I’ve been pretty happy leading a quiet existence.”
Even though I think Lisi enjoys the attention more than he admits and would love to be remembered by history, I believe him. He has chosen silence over noise, gravitated toward isolation over hustle and bustle. Maybe it’s in the quiet places—on the waves or in a cabin in the snow—that the truth reveals itself. Maybe the shape is right in front of us, if only we could open our eyes.