By Hamish Johnston
The July 21 issue of The New Yorker landed on my doormat this morning and I tore open the wrapper knowing that it contained a profile of the controversial theoretical physicist Garrett Lisi. The profile is by the journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells.
Lisi, who works independently and is not affiliated with a university or research institute, burst on the scene last year when he published “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” on the arXiv preprint server.
As the title suggests the paper tackles one of the big questions of physics — how to unify the Standard Model of particle physics with gravitation. However, it is anything but simple. Lisi’s paper is 31 dense pages of equations, diagrams and tables and is concerned with an 8D lattice called “E8”.
Stephen Maxfield of the University of Liverpool has just written an article on E8 in the July issue of Physics World and Matin Durrani touches on the Lisi controversy in his editorial.
Those with the mathematical expertise (and patience) to get to the bottom of Lisi’s theory have expressed very mixed views on its merit — and the work has yet to pass muster with any peer-review process.
According to The New Yorker, Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute described it as “one of the most compelling unification models I’ve seen in years”.
On the other hand, Jacques Distler of the University of Texas is quoted as saying “Not only can one never hope to get 3 generations out of this ‘Theory of Everything’, it appears that one can’t even get one”. By “generations”, Distler is referring to the various particles that Lisi claims can be described by his model.
However, it is not the content of Lisi’s paper that has generated the most controversy, but rather how certain factions within the physics community have latched-on to it.
Some critics of string theory — a leading contender for a theory of everything — have been accused of talking up Lisi’s work because it draws on similar mathematics as “loop quantum gravity”, an alternative theory of everything.
Also, instead of beavering away at a reputable institute, Lisi has spent the last few years snowboarding in the Rockies and surfing in Hawaii. “One can’t deny that the particular romance of this surfer dude played a part,” Distler is quoted as saying.
So is Lisi’s story one of “a surfer in search of credibility and a movement in search of a poster boy,” as The New Yorker suggests?
NB: I’m afraid you will have to buy The New Yorker to read this particular article because it is not available online.