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TED2008: Garrett Lisi looks for balance

Garrett Lisi has been getting a lot of attention lately, for putting forth a novel approach towards unifying particle physics based on geometric symmetry. He begins by referencing his surfer roots, putting a phenomenally complex equation on the screen. “Whoa dude, nice equations!”

To try to explain his work, Lisi asks us to think about coral. Each branch of coral is made of thousands of polyps, all genetically related to one another. He asks us to imagine that this coral is hyperintelligent and we can talk to it. We ask how a particular polyp ended up in a particular location. The coral would “admonish us for turning up the temperature, then tell us that we’re being stupid.” He shares his consciousness with each other polyp, and shares his experience with them. That would make him unusually able to understand quantum physics, in comparison to humans, who understand only one reality.

He offers a slightly different version of the Schrodinger’s cat paradox, one where the cat holds Schrodinger in a box and has a 50% chance of killing him through atomic decay. In the box, Schrodinger exists a branching function, alive and unalive at each point. Lisi tells us “everything that can happen does.”

Referencing the Large Hadron Collider, he tells us about the “whole zoo” of subatomic paricles, the 226 particles we know about, including simple particles like electrons and quarks, and their “second and third generation” relatives, which exist at much higher masses. He talks about the forces that effect each particle – the weak, strong, gravity and mass. A major hope for the Large Hadron Collider is that it will allow us to detect the Higgs Boson, which should give mass to other particles.

Lisi shows us force maps of particles, organized in terms of hypercharge and weak charges. They organize into symmetrical patterns – these symmetries are the result of projecting from 4D into 2D. “These pictures are not just pretty – they tell us what’s allowed to happen.” A great deal of progress has been made in physics by drawing these maps ad looking to see what’s missing – broken symmetries often reveal particles that are supposed to exist.

An even more complex pattern involves gravitation and is the projection of six dimensional charge space into two dimensions. Lisi believes that broken symmetries here are solved when we look for more perfect patterns in seven charge dimensions – we should see another force that works like the weak force, only much weaker.

The symmetry he’s looking for is in eight dimensional charge space, and would echo the shape of one of the most beautiful shapes in mathematics, a “smooth, curved shape with 218 dimensons.” The E8 lie group has helped explain the curvature of spacetime, and Lisi believes it can also help explain the whole particle zoo we’re currently encountering. In other words, he believes this shape could explain… everything.

This idea isn’t quite as wacky as it seems – our understanding of physics is deeply mathematical, and symmetries have helped predict the existence of forces and particles through time. This new model has holes in it – 20 particles that would need to exist. Two have been found so far – Lisi is hoping that particles created in the LHC will match this model. If so, “that will be very, very cool.” If not, it might still be very cool, but for him, it will the equivalent of a surfer wiping out.

We get the sense that this won’t be so bad for Lisi. He’s been living in a van on Maui, moving to various surf spots, and living “a balanced life between physics, love and surfing, my own three charge directions.” It doesn’t sound like a bad life, whether or not the math turns out to work out.

2 thoughts on “TED2008: Garrett Lisi looks for balance”

  1. This is what that would be called a stupid assumption. Supposse the Universe which appears to be composed of largly dark or black matter provides a compressive force on all normal matter which would in turn force matter together with only their momentem separating them.

    I have never myself felt comfortable with current explanations of particle physics as It appears to defy common logic. Would this help in completing your model?

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