|Antony Garrett Lisi|
Antony Garrett Lisi in Iceland, for the 2007 FQXI conference
January 24, 1968
Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything"
Antony Garrett Lisi (born January 24, 1968), who uses the name Garrett by preference, is an American-born theoretical physicist and adventure sports enthusiast. Lisi works as an independent researcher without an academic position. He is a strong proponent of balance in life, in his case between scientific research and enjoyment of the outdoors.
Lisi is best known for "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything," a paper that proposes a unified field theory combining particle physics with Einstein's theory of general relativity, which explains gravitation.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in San Diego, California, Lisi graduated the Cate School (south of Santa Barbara, California) in 1986. He learned to surf in San Diego, where he traveled between surf breaks in an old VW Bus. Lisi went on to receive two B.S. degrees with highest honors in physics and mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1991. He made several trips to Hawaii and, while enrolled as a graduate student in San Diego, traveled to Tahiti where he spent three weeks surfing Teahupoo, considered to have some of the most challenging waves in the world. Lisi received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, San Diego in 1999.
I got my PhD and looked at my options. I love differential geometry, general relativity, and particle physics. But the only options available then for a postdoc in those combined areas were in string theory, and I thought string theory was overly speculative. There are many really impressive aspects of strings — anomaly cancelation in particular — but there are other things that just seem wild and physically unsubstantiated. I had gotten lucky by investing my graduate stipend in a little company many thought was going out of business (AAPL), so I decided to go to Maui, learn to windsurf, and work on physics on my own.
On Maui, Lisi volunteered as a staff member at a local Sudbury school, and split his time between working on his own physics research and surfing. After two years, he moved to a friend's house in Incline Village, overlooking Lake Tahoe, where he spent time snowboarding, hang gliding, and paragliding. After visiting friends and family in California, Lisi spent the summer traveling the Pacific coast of Mexico, then returned north to attend the Burning Man festival in Nevada. After living in Maui for another year, Lisi moved to Summit County, Colorado, where he continued his physics research. During his two years in the Rocky Mountains, Lisi worked as a snowboard instructor at Breckenridge Ski Resort and as a scientific script consultant for a feature film. Lisi then purchased a Ford E-Series van and customized it to his own RV design. After another trip to Burning Man and through the Sierras, Lisi shipped the van to Maui. While living in the van with his girlfriend, Crystal Baranyk, Lisi taught physics classes at Maui Community College. After two years on Maui, Lisi says he was offered a tenure track teaching position at the local college, but turned it down (even though he was nearly broke) because it wouldn't have given him enough time for his physics research. At the same time, he submitted a grant application to the newly formed Foundational Questions Institute. Lisi says the decision to turn down the job offer and hope for FQXi funding was "a hell of a gamble."
On July 31, 2006, Lisi was awarded an FQXi grant to develop his research in quantum mechanics and unification. The grant allowed Lisi to devote his full attention to physics and create his personal research wiki, Deferential Geometry. On June 9, 2007, while living in Tahoe, Lisi realized that the algebraic structure he had constructed (over ten years of research) to unify the standard model of particle physics with general relativity perfectly matched the algebraic structure of the E8 Lie group. Lisi said "The moment this happened my brain exploded with the implications and the beauty of the thing."
With support from FQXi, Lisi began communicating with other physicists more directly about his research. He visited John Baez, who wrote a "This Week's Finds" post about Lisi's work. Lisi then traveled to the Loop Quantum Gravity conference in Morelia, Mexico where he gave a talk on June 25, 2007. At the conference he met Sabine Hossenfelder and Lee Smolin, and was invited to visit the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
On July 21, 2007, Lisi traveled to the inaugural FQXi conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. Interest in Lisi's work spread through the quantum gravity community, and he was invited to give several academic talks. Lisi visited the Perimeter Institute in October, and posted his paper, "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything," to the physics arXiv on November 6, 2007. Discussions of Lisi's theory developed rapidly over most major physics blogs, and the story of Lisi's theory and personal history was reported by many online and traditional media sources around the world. Lisi said "After the story broke, I awoke to Pandora's Inbox."
Lisi presented at the TED Conference on February 28, 2008. Invited by a friend, Lisi went heliskiing in the Chugach Mountains near Valdez, Alaska during the end of April. Lisi then attended BarCamp San Diego on May 3, 2008, where he conducted a collaborative brainstorming session on the creation of a Science Hostel. Lisi again visited the Perimeter Institute and spent the summer traveling, having no permanent residence. Lisi attended SciFooCamp and Burning Man in August, visited New York City in September, and moved back to Maui in October 2008. During 2009 Lisi traveled internationally, working, playing, and giving talks, before returning to Maui where he is "spending every other day surfing or kitesurfing."
Garrett Lisi's early work in theoretical physics included his publication of "A Solitary Wave Solution of the Maxwell-Dirac Equations" in 1995. He then began a decade long investigation into the geometric nature and origin of spinor fields, during which he posted several preprints to the arXiv, making steady progress.
On May 8, 2006, in an arXiv preprint, "Quantum mechanics from a universal action reservoir," Lisi described how the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics can be derived from information theory and the existence of a universal action reservoir.
Lisi is an early practitioner of open notebook science. Lisi created his "personal wiki notebook in theoretical physics" — the Deferential Geometry website — by using TiddlyWiki and jsMath. Lisi uses this wiki to organize his research notes in theoretical physics, referring to this as "open source physics."
Lisi's main work in theoretical physics is his Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which proposes a unified field theory combining a grand unification theory of particle physics with Albert Einstein's general relativistic description of gravitation, using the largest simple exceptional Lie algebra, E8. In a paper posted to the physics arXiv on November 6, 2007, Lisi describes how gravity, the standard model bosons and fermions can be unified as parts of an E8 superconnection. This unified field theory attempts to describe all fundamental interactions observed in nature, and stands as a possible theory of everything, unifying Albert Einstein's general relativity with the standard model of particle physics. The theory, called E8 Theory, also predicts the existence of many new particles.
Lisi designed a web application, the Elementary Particle Explorer, for visualizing the charge structure of the elementary particles in the standard model, in grand unified theories, and in E8 Theory.
Lisi's theory has been applauded but also sharply criticized in the scientific community, with some favorable and unfavorable views falling along the partisan lines of the detractors and proponents of string theory.
Lisi's theory cast him into center stage in the debate over the merits of string theory — the competing and dominant contender for a theory of everything. Describing string theory and the related sociology, Lisi said:
There are lots of good things about string theory. It appears to be quantizeable, and can accommodate gravity in a fairly natural way. It also has restrictions that come out, due to anomaly cancelation, that say what can and cannot be a "good" quantum string theory. Originally people thought this would be enough, when coupled with the right background manifolds, to get all the standard model particle fields to correspond to oscillations of a string. But it's never worked quite right. In order to get it to work at all, string theorists have to bend over backwards and put in all sorts of things by hand. This is the main warning sign that a theory doesn't correspond to nature. What happens is, a theory looks promising, so people invest time in developing it. If it looks like it's matching nature, that's great. But if it doesn't quite fit nature, people have already invested a lot of time in the theory, so instead of abandoning it, they try to revise it -- they add stuff and try to patch it up. But the more you have to add by hand, without any experimental guidance, the worse the theory looks and the less likely it is to be true about how nature works.
This harkens back to the story of how in the early 20th century, ether theories, also numerous and complicated, eventually fell to a simple, yet radically different theory, which happened to be Einstein's special relativity.
Garrett Lisi is an adventure sports enthusiast — surfing, snowboarding, and kitesurfing at the expert level as well as participating in many other adventure sports. In an interview for Wired News, Lisi says:
Surfing and snowboarding are what I do for fun -- to get out and play in nature. We live in a beautiful universe, and I wish to enjoy it and understand it as best I can. And I try to live a balanced life. Surfing is simply the most fun I know how to have on this planet. And physics, and science in general, is the best way of understanding how everything works. So this is what I spend my time doing. I do what I love, and follow my interests. Shouldn't everyone?
Lisi brings some of his physics to his sports activities. During graduate school and years in Maui, most of Lisi's surfboards were adorned with the wave equation as decorative art. And when riding an extra-long carving board, for alpine snowboarding, in Colorado and Tahoe, Lisi always wears a long white lab coat. He has also become a sponsored team rider for an Oregon surfboard manufacturer, 42 Surfboards.
Although concentrating on surfing, kitesurfing and snowboarding, Lisi participates in a wide variety of adventure sports. On his online journal, Lisi describes his experiences surfing, snowboarding, windsurfing, sailing, kitesurfing, mountain biking, skateboarding, motorcycling, cliff diving, rock climbing, hang gliding, paragliding, backpacking, water skiing, wakeboarding, flying, sky diving, and scuba diving. Speaking to Surfer Magazine, Lisi says:
I'm a hedonist, but a contemplative one. I want the deep pleasures in life. I want to look into a girl's eyes and know she loves me. I want to understand what others have thought about life, and put the pieces together into a picture that makes sense. I want to paddle as hard as I can, drop into the pit, crank a bottom turn, and pull in under the lip as it throws out -- and hoot like a madman after the ride. I want to figure out the pattern at the heart of the universe. And I want to lay twenty consecutive, fully laid out turns down a groomed black diamond on a carving board. So that's what I do. I try to live my daydreams.
Lisi is working on a film about young scientists who combine cutting-edge research with adventure sports.
Lisi proposes the creation of a more casual kind of science institute — a science hostel — which he says "would essentially be large houses in beautiful locations where theorists could live and work." Citing his experience living in Maui and the mountains of Tahoe and Colorado, Lisi says that for theoretical research it is good to have opportunities for hiking and things to do outside in attractive environments. Describing the idea more formally, Lisi says:
The physical requirements for conducting scholarly research have changed dramatically with the rise of the internet. It is now viable for researchers with laptop computers to work autonomously -- with access to current articles and communication channels on par with the resources available at large universities. These new circumstances motivate the creation of a new kind of research enterprise: a Science Hostel. By providing places to live and work with other researchers, in beautiful locations, a Science Hostel could increase creative productivity and overall quality of life for scholars in the internet age.
Garrett Lisi's story attracted a great deal of media attention. Numerous news sites from all over the world reported on his new theory, also noting his unorthodox personal background. Lisi has been the subject of many biographical articles and interviews: