TED 2008 -- Garrett Lisi's E8 Theory of Everything

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA) Presenter:
200802281310 Garrett Lisi is introduced as a surfing physicist working on a grand unified theory - E8. He wants to find all the particles and forces that make a complete picture of our universe. He starts by making fun of himself, coming onto the stage and saying "Woah dude, check out those killer equations!"

But he wants to talk about particle physics without using equations. He starts showing images of corals. Coral polyps branch into copies. So do universes. He shows a funny slide of the Shroedinger's Cat problem (for comic effect, he puts Erwin in the box, and the cat gets to run the experiment). We see Shroedinger branching like a coral polyp in the unopened box. Quantum physics says "Everything that can happen does."

The four different known forces have different kinds of charges. The hypothetical Higgs particle gives mass to things, and the Large Hadron Collider that's about to go into operation will hopefully prove the existence of Higgs particles.

Electric charges are combinations of two different charges, hyper charges and weak charge.

Strong interactions between quarks are happening millions of times a second, holding atomic nuclei together. These particles are at the very limit of our knowledge. The known pattern of charges could come from a more perfect pattern that gets broken. to do these we need to introduce new charges with new directions. He shows a colorful animated pattern of elementary particle interactions. The interactions are taking place in the 8th dimension. Some of the places where there should be particles are blank. They need to be filled in with currently unknown particles.

What's one reason E8 is so appealing to him? "At the heart of this mathematics is pure, beautiful geometry."

He finishes by showing photos of his three obessions: physics, love, and surfing. He has been living in a van in Maui.

The consensus around here is that even though Lisi avoided equations, it was pretty incomprehensible. That's why I'm attracted to Renny Gleeson's explanation of the talk: it was about Spirograph art.


  1. Erwin’s evil twin.

    I’m waiting to see if Lisi is on to something. Pity is they have to dumb it down so much I still won’t know if he is on to something.

  2. I think he means Erwin. Kurt is a nicer name though.

    This sort of thinking is indistinguishable from spiritual inquiry, to me at least – I hope to see a cultural tendency for the rift between science and religion to be healed.

  3. Read Greg Egan’s Distress if you’re so excited about the TOE. If there is a Higgs boson, then there is an anti-Higgs boson. Have fun finding that one.

  4. Living on Maui, I will have to ask some of my surfing buddies if they know this guy. Something tells me they would remember the guy talking about a grand unifying theory while riding at Ho’okipa.

  5. Lisi was on to something if only the prediction of new particles. Using this one idea and ignoring the rest of his work, one is able to come up with a proveable generable theory of everything. See the work of the lumiinaries, mix in a genius IQ (not necessarily too high, 130+ should do) and come up with it on your own. I’m not going to be responsible for your meeting god. (at least not directly, and certainly not yet)

    Good luck to all that seek; it is knowable.

  6. damn, what was that story again… South Africa, black physicist, apartheid cops, torture (“Wot’s this “TOE” on your shirt, kaffir!!” – great description of actual tortures used for all you “waterboarding is just a shower” pricks -…. “Dead Mans’s something? a bus? … this is gonna bug me now…. bloody good writing too.

  7. Lisi’s ToE can be found here and he addresses some questions about the theory here.

    It has been interesting to observe the reactions since Lisi published his paper. That important mathematical work is being done by people outside the academic community, like Lisi and Grigori Perelman, and being published at arXiv instead of in peer-reviewed journals seems to irritate some and exhilarate others.

    I find the whole thing delightful and look forward to the peer review of Lisi’s theory (my paltry undergraduate degree in math leaves me ill-prepared to make any judgment one way or another). If it bears out, how lovely to live in such a beautiful universe! And if not, how lovely to still have a question in need of answering!

  8. #4 I concur, ‘Distress’ by Greg Egan is great! Still think about it years after reading, as I do about most of his stories.

  9. I work with quantum physics everyday; I think this theories are like more like poetry than science: they are beautiful, but has provide no, or little, objective insight on how the universe works.

    On the other hand, it cannot hurt and it may as well bring some insight if it prove able to predict some experimental data.

    The fact that the dude is a surfer well, Feynmann was a bongo player.

  10. My Brother is in the theoretical physics field. He says that TOEs are really common and the only reason that this guy’s got attention is that he surfs. He says the theory may be meaningful, but right now it competes with a lot of others that are vying for attention. When I asked him about the new guy’s TOE, he asked “which one?” He also states that it is fairly common to propose theoretical work outside of the standard academic community. This guy’s day job is just a bit more romantic than most.

  11. It’s a sad that mathematicians need to pretend to be physicists to get academic support.

    It’s sad for mathematicians, but tragic for students who would like to become physicists and not abstract mathematicians. Entire physics departments (e.g. Harvard’s) have been taken over by mathematicians who have no practical interest in the actual science of physics — lab work, experiments, synthesis from experimental data. Astronomy departments are similarly afflicted.

    I’ll bet Lisi’s notion is beautiful, and from a mathematical standpoint that should suffice. It’s a shame he has to dress it up as physics.

  12. The universe was created when normal thickness lasagna noodles of infinite extent (thus rendering them effectively one-dimensional membranes) stuck together and then were rudely pulled apart while being stirred by the great cook in the sky, named Olga. That this corresponded to a 128 sided object, also, had to do with the fact that the metal pasta stirring wand had 128 nodes on it.

    I met my roommate one day. We had assigned rooms. He kept talking about Olga. His thesis the I think he did finally finish was about “Russian peasant immigration in 1885”. He was so depressed about Olga not having a visa to even visit. Then she visited. And Olga was the spitting image of a porn star. I had never seen such a sexy yet humbly beautiful girl in my entire life, and that includes my first girlfriend.

    So yeah, there are theory, and then there are THEORIES, and this one happens to be qualitatively (of a different category of coolness than their competitors) better than others. It’s Olga, from nowhere.

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