Carving a theory: Theoretical physicist escapes pondering on Tahoe slopes
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Garrett Lisi, a surfer and snowboarder, made waves among high-level theoretical physicists when he released his paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” – a shot at what those in the field call the “holy grail” of theories. In his theory, Lisi attempts to link, well, every object large and small, and all forces in the universe, by mathematics.
His theory butts heads with the prevailing idea, the “String Theory,” and string theorists haven’t been modest in telling him how wrong he is. Lisi has been called “silly,” “a quack” and papers discrediting him aren’t uncommon. But the surfer/snowboarder has also gained support from a number of prestigious professors and attention from national media.
Lisi has been coming to Tahoe for the last four years to live, work and snowboard. He happened upon his Theory of Everything a couple of years ago while hanging at a friend’s vacation home near Incline Village. Since then it hasn’t exactly been all downhill, but Lisi has made sure to get his turns in.
In an interview with the Tribune, Lisi talks about his theory, physics, Tahoe and snowboarding.
The basic idea is that the elementary particles we know of, including the electrons and quarks that make up atoms, as well as the photons and gluons holding them together, are all aspects of a single complicated geometric shape, the E8 Lie group, twisting over the fabric of spacetime.
For most of the past 10 years I was trying to figure out what electrons are, geometrically, in a way that’s compatible with Einstein’s successful geometric description of gravity. After a lot of work, much of it done in Tahoe, I had managed to figure out a reasonable description of electrons and how they interact with everything else, and the structure of these interactions seemed to be forming a consistent pattern.
Early one morning, after a big winter storm, I had the crazy idea that the entire structure I had assembled might all be part of some larger geometric structure, and went looking, and that’s when I found the E8 Lie group, and saw that everything fit perfectly. It was an amazing moment. You don’t get many like that in life.
I had to subdue my excitement, though, in order to sit down and confirm that the math actually works. It’s turned out to work even better than I could have hoped, and it turns out these mathematical structures even have pretty visual representations, useful for describing particle physics. There’s even a website for playing with these particle charge diagrams, and a T-shirt: http://deferentialgeometry.org/epe/
Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains provide an extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful environment for thinking about deep theoretical questions. Tahoe is just a great, healthy place to live and work.
One of the projects I’m working on is to create a network of small scientific institutes, which would mostly consist of people’s vacation homes in places like Tahoe, open to a small community of theoretical researchers who would enjoy staying in nice places while they work.
Snowboarding and surfing demand a lot of focus and physical exertion. Doing theoretical work can be extremely frustrating, and it’s great to be able to go out and surf a few waves, or make a few turns down a hill, and clear your mind of whatever it might be hung up on, so you can come back and look at problems with a fresh perspective. Also, surfing and snowboarding feel great. They’re pretty much the most fun one can have on this planet.
When you’re surfing, you often drop down the face of a wave and make a deep bottom turn before coming back up, turning off the lip, and doing it again. It’s a really great feeling to lean your body way over and balance against the acceleration of your turn. You also sometimes get that feeling water skiing, or riding a motorcycle on a twisting road.
I was trying to make those same kind of turns snowboarding, and the snowboards used for racing work great for that. Wearing hard boots and solid metal bindings set at extreme angles for maximum leverage, you can really crank around some nice turns. Snowboarding like that leaves big ruts in the snow, which can upset some people coming down behind you, but for carvers, those deep S’s left in the hill are a work of art. And it feels great like laying down one surfing bottom turn after another, dancing with gravity.