Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Surfer dude discovers theory of everything – maybe

Roger Highfield, science editor for the UK Telegraph, has discovered the next Einstein – or not.

On Nov. 14, Highfield published a story with the magnificent headline, “Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything.”

The theory has something to do with E8, a mathematical shape that occurs at many different levels of physics. Garrett Lisi thinks the universe is shaped like E8 and that this shape will become the dominant framework in physics – a kind of Periodic Table for subatomic particles.

The source material includes pretty pictures and contains many big words. I’d like to tell you more about it, but the truth is, I dove into this research and was in over my head so fast, it felt like a ride at Texas Water Rampage.

I took some courses in college, but now my knowledge of physics can be summed up in one phrase: “Fire is hot, and sometimes when I drop things, they fall.”

I realized I was out of my depth, so like any good geek, I Googled it. Here is a summary of my findings: “Garrett Lisi is the next Einstein!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” And so on.

Look for details of this search in my upcoming paper, “Limitations of Google as a tool for scientific research.”

Internet research wasn’t going to cut it this time. I needed a physicist, and fortunately, I have one on speed dial. One of my favorite professors at Tech was Dr. David Lamp in the physics department.

Lamp has a gift for explaining complex things in plain English, which is probably why he got stuck with the “Physics for Misunderstood Artists” course that I took in college.

I rang up Dr. Lamp and asked if he remembered his favorite C-student. This kind of thing isn’t really his specialty, so he directed me to Richard Wigmans with the High Energy Experimental Particle Physics group.

Internet critics have alternately canonized and crucified Lisi, but Wigmans is taking a wait-and-see approach. Physics profs hear theories like this every day, but Wigmans said, “The difference in this case is that the author is a person with a respectable scientific background. He holds a Ph.D in physics from a good university, and this is the reason that other respectable scientists go through the trouble of reacting to his article.”

Wigmans works in experimental physics and is not particularly concerned with theory.

“Until now, string theory has not provided anything in terms of verifiable predictions, and is therefore not considered very meaningful by experimentalists such as me,” he said. “From what I read, it seems that some aspects of Dr. Lisi’s theory might be experimentally tested. In that case, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which will start operations next year – and in which my TTU group is heavily involved – may provide some judgment.”

Right or wrong, Lisi’s theory can be tested, and when the data come in, representatives from Texas Tech will be on the front line.

While the media is fueling the hype around this theory, Lisi himself is trying to tone it down.

“I hope people can keep in mind that this is just a theory,” Lisi writes. “It has no experimental support, and it might be wrong. I think it’s got a shot, which is why I work on it.” He warns, “Don’t go crazy, people; but yes, it is pretty damn cool.”

Local experts are willing to wait for evidence and give this theory a chance, but for many casual readers, the issue has already been decided.

Hey, I saw “Good Will Hunting.” I know how this stuff works. The cool guy with the surf board is always right and the boring old guys at the university are always wrong.

It’s a fundamental law of the universe – the physics undergrad version of the American dream. But judging theories based on Hollywood story conventions is not good science or good journalism.

Garrett Lisi is a great story. Writing about him doesn’t make Roger Highfield a bad journalist, but making up your mind too quickly might make you a bad reader.

That’s the great thing about science. It’s the one place left in society where evidence counts for more than authority, where being proved wrong may be the greatest moment in a man’s life.

Maybe the critics are right and string theory is our best tool for understanding the universe, or maybe E8 is a Rosetta Stone and Garrett Lisi will have the last laugh.

The question will ultimately be decided by evidence, so in the meantime, don’t believe everything you read.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

December 7, 2007 at 18:11

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Science

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