Over at Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit has a reference to a new article on the Garrett Lisi affair, this time in Outside Magazine. Lisi is the physicist who received a great deal of media attention earler this year when he posted a paper on the ArXiv server on a new classification of elementary particles based on the group E8, superbly titled ‘ An exceptionally simple theory of everything’. The paper was picked up by science magazines and newpapers all over the world, with prominent articles in outlets like the New Scientist, and The Telegraph, all of whom made a great deal of the fact that Lisi is an untenured academic, who spends much of his time surfing and snowboarding…
The Outside Magazine article is a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with this story. Given his lifestyle, I imagine Garret probably appreciated this article more than any of the others. I didn’t know what to make of the Lisi story at first, but I’m glad it’s resurfacing, it’s a bit of light relief in our dull lives. ..
A few points strike me
1. Every time journos draw a comparison with Einstein, Lisi patiently points out that the lack of tenure is the only similarity – so it’s not his fault they keep making this comparison
2. I don’t see the problem with the surfer angle – surely it makes a welcome change from the usual media view of scientists. Besides, if Lisi is not a full-time academic, it simply means he probably has more time to think than the rest of us, not having to deal with endless admin, emails, proposals, teaching etc!
3. I’m delighted to see group theory get some attention – few outside the field have the slightest idea of the importance of group theory in particle physics. It seems some experts think that the whole E8xE8 thing may turns out to be a fairly trivial classification, but I enjoyed Lisi’s paper no end. It’s interesting that Dad’s book on group theory (chap 10) makes it clear that the E8 group had long been of interest to the supersymmetry gang, for reasons I don’t begin to understand. Technical stuff aside, the whole story is reminiscent of Gellmann’s eigthfold way, no bad thing.
All in all, I think scientists are inclined to react strongly against media attention, especially if we feel there are more deserving cases. We need to get over this, because such stories probably do far more for the public perception of physics than any number of well-intentioned school visits!
I probably should have explained what a Theory of Everything (TOE) is – it’s a theory that incorporates a description of the elementary particles and all their interactions (as opposed to a Grand Unified Theory, which is a theory that unifies three of the fundamental forces). If gravity is included in a unified framework like this, it’s called a Theory of Everything, because that’s all the forces we know. Unfortunately, it has proven very difficult to incorporate gravity with the other three interactions, not least because we don’t have a quantum theory of gravity (all the others are quantum theories). In short, Einstein’s famous quest for a unified field theory now continues under the title ToE, and is still the Holy Grail of theoretical physics.