Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Seed - Garrett Lisi's Exceptional Approach to Everything

Garrett Lisi made big news a couple of years ago with an elegant solution to the search for the theory of everything. The only problem was that he was not a working physicist - he lived in Maui and was working alone, without grants and peers. And he surfed.

Here is some info from Wikipedia:

Lisi's main work in theoretical physics is his Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.[15] Developed over ten years, this work culminated in the posting of a preprint of the same name to the physics arXiv on November 6, 2007. Lisi describes how gravity, the standard model bosons, and three generations of fermions can be unified as parts of an E8 superconnection. This unified field theory attempts to describe all fundamental interactions that physicists have observed in nature, and stands as a possible theory of everything, unifying Albert Einstein's general relativity with the standard model of particle physics.

In response to the question of why the Universe should be controlled by Wilhelm Killing's E8 structure, Lisi responded:[12]

I think the universe is pure geometry - basically, a beautiful shape twisting and dancing over space-time. Since E8 is perhaps the most beautiful structure in mathematics, it is very satisfying that nature appears to have chosen this geometry.

After its publication, Lisi's story attracted a great deal of media attention. Numerous news sites from all over the world reported his new theory, also noting the unorthodox personal background of Dr. Lisi. About the initial reception of his model, Lisi commented:[8]

OK, the hype (and my inbox) has gotten totally out of control. This is, after all, about an untested theory that may or may not turn out to be true. But, on the other hand, it’s pretty damn amusing. Mostly, all this media attention just makes me want to go hide for fifteen minutes, and I hope to come back to see physicists pondering this E8 theory, despite the hype.

Lisi's theory has been applauded but also sharply criticized in the scientific community,[21][22] with some favorable and unfavorable views falling along the partisan lines of the detractors and proponents of string theory.[5][23]

The controversy surrounding his theory appears to match the "period of revolutionary science" described in Thomas Kuhn's seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Response was mixed, with some people supporting more research into his theory and the adherents to the various string theory models rejecting it. The cool thing thing, and the focus of the Seed article is his "open source" approach to science.

How a physicist published and vetted his revolutionary work signals the potential future of an open, transparent peer review process.

by Greg Boustead • Posted November 17, 2008 01:06 PM

Garrett Lisi gets it. The couch-surfing, academia-shunning theoretical physicist grasps something that, for scientists, is possibly more elusive than illuminating the complicated behavior of subatomic particles: balance in life. Don't want to be stuck in a lab? Get out. Want to travel the world living where you please, doing research in between surfing and snowboarding? Pack your bags. Have a problem with the scholarly journal system? Publish your own papers. To say that Lisi conducts science on his own terms tells only part of the story.

When Lisi published his physics paper, "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything," to an online archive last year, it created a media buzz about his lifestyle and an onslaught of support and skepticism about his model. Although the verdict is still out on whether Lisi's theory will prove predicatively accurate, the means by which he released and vetted his research point to a larger trend in the scientific community.

Barriers to data are falling, a cross-disciplinary community of commenters is replacing journal-selected peer reviewers, and "information to the people!" is becoming the raison d'ĂȘtre of the science information superhighway. The movement, combined with an evolving image of the contemporary scientist, is redefining how society interacts with science.

We checked in with Lisi recently for an update on his theory, his thoughts on publishing, and his pursuit of life.

You left academia to study physics on your own. Why?

Freedom. When I got my PhD, I really loved general relativity, quantum field theory, and differential geometry, and I wanted to continue my research in these areas. But at that time the only funded research options available in these combined fields were in string theory, which was and still is the dominant research program in theoretical particle physics. I had learned a bit about string theory, and some things about it are pretty cool, but I thought string models were kind of far-fetched and probably not relevant to our universe. So I took off for Maui — the most beautiful part of the world I could find — and worked on the physics I wanted to, while squeaking by financially. Recently, research grants from small private foundations (FQXi and SubMeta) have allowed me to travel a bit and talk with other physicists, but I still spend most of my time on Maui.

Why isn't string theory relevant to the universe?

Which string theory? Back in the 80s, string theorists expected the standard model spectrum of particles to come out of the theory naturally, but it never did. Now we have been presented with the idea that there is a landscape of many possible string theories, and our universe is supposed to be in there somewhere. There are some nice things about strings, but no testable predictions come from this jumble of models, and there is no single realistic string model that can be held up for our inspection. String theory has been getting a lot of heat lately, and I don't need to add fuel to the fire. Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have written excellent books describing some of the problems with the string theory program, both technical and sociological. My own views on the technical problems with string theory won't add anything new to the argument. I think scientists should be able to weigh the pros and cons of different theoretical models for themselves and follow what interests them, without pressure in one direction or another.

Why did you choose not to submit your paper to a traditional peer-reviewed journal?

I think peer review is important, but the journal-operated system is severely broken. I suspected this paper would get some attention, and I chose not to support any academic journal by submitting it. Under the current system, authors (who aren't paid) give ownership of their papers to journals that have reviewers (who aren't paid) approve them before publishing the papers and charging exorbitant fees to view them. These reviewers don't always do a great job, and the journals aren't providing much value in exchange for their fees. This old system persists because academic career advancement often depends on which journals scientists can get their papers into, and it comes at a high cost — in money, time, and stress. I think a better peer-review system could evolve from reviewers with good reputations picking the papers they find interesting out of an open pool, such as the physics arXiv, and commenting on them. This is essentially what happened with my paper, which received a lot of attention from physics bloggers — it's been an example of open, collaborative peer review.

Read the whole interview.


Anonymous said...

Lisi is a genius and an inpiration to me. His Theory of Everything makes a great deal of sense from what I undestand of the universe and nature: symmetry and balance are some of its core values.

Complexity is born out of simple rules repeated over and over. So a Theory of Everything that makes sense to me is one that identifies the simple rules that govern the complexity we see around us.

Anonymous said...


a physicist sums it up--lisi is smolin's $100,000,000 revenge:

To elaborate: After string theory was deplorably overhyped, a certain non-string faction in the community, feeling neglected and overlooked, decided ?Hey, we can play that game too?. A tussle ensued, with the non-stringers (LQG?ers, to be precise) casting themselves into the media spotlight as David versus the string theory Goliath. Enter Garrett Lisi with his ?theory of everything?. In normal circumstances it would have been ignored, but, in a case of what some might call spectacular opportunism, a certain leading figure from the non-string camp promotes it as ?fabulous? to his media contacts. Lisimania ensues. But for journalists trying to determine the true status of the work the task is not an easy one: Those physicists who in normal circumstances would have been consulted as the leading authorities in the field are mostly string theorists, active or complicit in previous overhyping of string theory. How can their dismissal of Lisi?s work be trusted as unbiased?
And in any case, most of them have little desire to speak out on this. Who wants to take on the public role of ogre, out to suppress the delightful outsider with his bold new theory that has so fired the public?s imagination (without them having a clue about what it is about at the technical level)?

The media has been unable (and perhaps a bit unwilling) to identify physics authorities who could clarify the status of Lisi?s work, whose objectivity was beyond challenge. In such a vacuum, nonsense can easily flourish.

Posted by a physicist


The facts are in:

Lisi's theory has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Lisi's theory does not add up.
Lisi's theory makes no concrete numerical predictions.
Lisi's theory will not be tested by the LHC, nor anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

From: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2008/11/garrett-lisis-exceptional-approach-to-everything.html

"Barriers to data are falling, a cross-disciplinary community of commenters is replacing journal-selected peer reviewers, and "information to the people!" is becoming the raison d'ĂȘtre of the science information superhighway."

Well, then Lisi et al. ought stop censoring Fields Medalist Alain Connes from his "open source" wiki page:


The Fields Medalist Alain Connes also referred directly to Lisi's paper when he stated "The ridiculous recent episode of the “exceptionally simple theory of everything” has shown that there is no credibility in the opponents of string theory in the US".[48]