Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Surfer Dude" Rewrites Physics?

There is nothing significant about a man who spends his time adventuring, surfing, snowboarding, and hopping from job to job. Of course if that man has a PhD in theoretical physics and has just published a paper which may be the biggest breakthrough in physics since Einstein, well then you have a story.

A few weeks ago, Lisi posted an academic paper called "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" to, a site for scientists that's maintained by Cornell University. The paper outlined his attempt at a theory that would lay out the physics of the universe in one tidy package. For half a century, researchers have sought to reconcile gravity with the three forces that operate inside atoms, where gravity seems to hold no sway. No one—not even Einstein, who spent the later years of his life trying—has been able to explain how these four forces can coexist.

To understand fully Lisi's own stab at the problem requires a grasp of mathematics far beyond all but a handful of people, but the basic premise is that all physical forces and particles can be explained by mapping them onto an incredibly complex geometrical structure known as E8. If Lisi is right, his theory would give an elegant shape to the physics of the cosmos, and E8 would become as significant as E=MC2. This would be a remarkable feat coming from any of the most accomplished physicists alive. Coming from a surf bum, it would be beyond extraordinary.

Lisi began presenting his theory at conferences last year, and many well-regarded physicists found it interesting, even plausible. So he posted the paper, hoping for feedback. And with that, he set off a rogue wave of hype and backlash that he's having a hard time riding. SURFER DUDE STUNS PHYSICISTS WITH THEORY OF EVERYTHING, thundered London's Telegraph. Discover magazine asked, COULD THE NEXT EINSTEIN BE A SURFER DUDE?

Of course this is brand new and it will take awhile to be fully vetted, but this is still very exciting. Even if the whole theory does not pan out, breaking it down and debunking it could lead to a better understanding of our current physics models. I think it is great that this is coming from an outsider, too. Often it takes someone outside of the establishment, whatever it may be, to see something with a different perspective and shake things up.

If you are curious to learn more about physics, then I highly recommend Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It really is geared for the lay reader and Hawking does a fantastic job of explaining complicated theories in very understandable ways. It's also a beautiful eye-opener to many hidden wonders in our incredible universe.

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