Surfer’s ‘everything theory’ wipes out

EMORY (US)—The “exceptionally simple theory of everything,” proposed by physicist Garrett Lisi  in 2007, doesn’t hold water, according to mathematician Skip Garibaldi.

“The beautiful thing about math and physics is that it is not subjective,” says Garibaldi of Emory University. “I wanted a peer-reviewed paper published, so that the scientific literature provides an accurate state of affairs, to help clear up confusion among the lay public on this topic.”

E8-inspired graph. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/J. G. Moxness, an emulation of a hand-drawn original by Peter McMullen)

Released in November 2007, Lisi’s paper titled “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” centered on the elegant mathematical structure known as E8, that also appears in string theory.

Lisi spent much of his time surfing in Hawaii, adding an alluring bit of color to the story surrounding the theory. Although his paper was not peer-reviewed, and Lisi himself told the Daily Telegraph that the theory was still in development, the idea was widely reported in the media.

First identified in 1887, E8 has 248 dimensions and cannot be seen, or even drawn, in its complete form. The enigmatic E8 is the largest and most complicated of the five exceptional Lie groups, and contains four subgroups that are related to the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force, the strong force (which binds quarks), the weak force (which controls radioactive decay), and the gravitational force.

Garibaldi was among the skeptics when the theory hit the news. So was Jacques Distler, a particle physicist at the University of Texas, who wrote about problems he saw with Lisi’s idea on his blog. Distler’s posting inspired Garibaldi to think about the issue more, eventually leading to their collaboration.

In a nutshell, Lisi proposed that E8 is the unifying force for all the forces of the universe.

“That would be great if it were true, because I love E8,” Garibaldi says. “But the problem is, it doesn’t work as he described it in his paper.”

Garibaldi and Distler’s paper appears in Communications in Mathematical Physics.

“A lot of mystery surrounds the Lie groups, but the facts about them should not be distorted,” Garibaldi says. “These are natural objects that are central to mathematics, so it’s important to have a correct understanding of them.”

Using linear algebra and proving theorems to translate the physics into math, Garibaldi and Distler not only showed that the formulas proposed in Lisi’s paper do not work, they also demonstrated the flaws in a whole class of related theories.

“You can think of E8 as a room, and the four subgroups related to the four fundamental forces of nature as furniture, let’s say chairs,” Garibaldi explains.

“It’s pretty easy to see that the room is big enough that you can put all four of the chairs inside it. The problem with ‘the theory of everything’ is that the way it arranges the chairs in the room makes them non-functional.”

He gives the example of one chair inverted and stacked atop another chair.

“I’m glad that I will now be able to point to a peer-reviewed scientific article that clearly rebuts this theory.

“There are so many great stories in science, there’s no reason to puff up something that doesn’t work.”

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  1. Fred

    In the game, Rock Surfboard Scissors, rock beats surfboard.

  2. derp

    Rock must be pretty badass in “Rock, Surfboard, Scisscors,” then, because I would imagine it beats scissors as well.

  3. Wat

    > In the game, Rock Surfboard Scissors, rock beats surfboard.

    Then scissors beats rock? The chairs in your E8 room are clearly stacked…

  4. Jo Walsh

    Wow that dude is prety slcik isnt he!


  5. jennifer shafer

    love the simplicity………the details will work themselves out:) unity of energy:) brilliant:)

    a singluar convergence point:)

    much love thanks for the thoughts:)

    very much in line with my recent impressions:)

  6. Exidy

    Anonymizer spam link beats rock!

  7. Dale Clark

    I think it got so much hype because he was a surfer. Maybe they wanted to show that anyone has a chance to figure this thing called life out..

  8. Gunni

    I’m just misunderstood.

  9. marvin

    I’m not educated enough in this area to have any real understanding of this although I do find this sort of thing fascinating from a “lay person’s” perspective.

    The graphic of the E8 is awesome.

  10. Linker

    Full paper here :

  11. sysin3

    I’ll go with Lisi. His theory is elegant and symmetrical. Somebody gonna be right, somebody gonna be wrong. Not one damn soul on the planet knows which is which. Only time will tell.

  12. Daniel Herr

    My confidence in Garrett Lisi’s E8 theory has not, in any way, been reduced by this article or by this link:

  13. De Whitney-Hickman

    I think Garrett Lisi is a genius and Skip is a little jealous of Garretts’ work, life and fame. What is the calculation for sour grapes? E8 makes more sense than any unified theory out there.

  14. Mr. Gunn

    sysin3, Daniel, & De –

    I must admit I find your comments a little strange. It’s not about jealousy or confidence or your gut feeling of what makes sense. It’s not about being on someone’s side. It’s about what’s demonstrably correct. At this point the scientific record contains both Lisi’s work and the record of flaws therein. The way the science will move forward is to take a look at what those flaws are and think about what sort of theory would account also for those. The whole “I’m a surfer” and “I’m a rock climber” stuff is just playing to the news media.

    Many beautiful theories have been slain by ugly facts. We must march on.

  15. emc

    This may be unfair, but I am always frustrated when physicists simplify their mathematical theories for us lowly laypeople, with puzzling analogies (metaphors?) such as the room with furniture in it. Unfortunately, we are left with an image of an upside down chair in a living room, and we still don’t know what they’re talking about. The significance is elusive. I wish they would not speak down so much to the public, but rather, try broader methods of communicating.

  16. Thomas

    To emc – Once upon a time there was a very intelligent guy in the field of quantum theory stuff by the name of Richard P. Feynman . He could explain most anything in his field in terms the layman would understand.
    He understood the KISS principle , got the Nobel Prize, and even made life easier for many of his peers.

    He also, amidst a panel of stuffy experts, figured out what went wrong with a Space Shuttle when it blew up when everybody else was scratching their head. I think he used an origami figure. It was about “O” rings.

    So it is possible for the language of the elite scientist to explain most of the obscure things in terms we, the uninformed, can understand . Often I tend to think they’d rather we didn’t comprehend, thus a jargon foreign to the layman.
    Sometimes too, some of these science wizards are not totally aware that anyone other than another scientist would be interested in what they have to say. Insular lot, they can be.

  17. Thomas

    for emc – last sentence above should be “totally unaware” ….

  18. Alfred

    I agree that when I read/hear about mathematics I hadn’t learned described in metaphors I can safely say that I don’t understand, and I immediately look for a different source of information. On the other hand, these metaphors may be how the mathematician sees the concept–perhaps a proof inspired this vision–but the fact that it’s not rigorous cannot be overlooked. Hence these authors expect the unlikely; that is, they expect that the readers will draw the relevant connection and not be left envisioning the oddly arranged chairs in a room. The reason why this is impossible for lay readers is that they haven’t been (1) exposed to that mathematics and (2) exposed to other mathematics in which that analogy could be drawn so that they could see what types of manipulations would lead to the odd arrangement or orientation of chairs in the first place.

  19. misanthropope

    have we reached the point now, where the difference between science and math isn’t even appreciated?

    math is axiomatic. you disprove an incorrect statement with symbols inscribed on paper. science is empirical, you disprove an incorrect statement with DATA obtained from the actual, physical universe.

    make falsifiable predictions, or call yourself a theologian instead of a “physicist”, please.

  20. James

    Unfortunately, the tone of Distler and Garibaldi’s paper is that of jealousy.
    Perhaps, their critical comments will be useful.

    Lisi deserves a lot of credit for putting forth an interesting theory. He acknowledges
    that the theory needs to address the rest of the physics issues and that takes time
    and a lot of work.

    Whether LIsi’s work ends up being the correct path to a GUT or not, it is certainly meritorious.

  21. curlycue

    everything is subjective; math receives no exemptions

  22. Nathan Solo

    The only thing wrong with the theory is that the geometric construct should be 256, not 248. 256 is the number of times a human cell will replace itself, the maximum human lifespan, the minimum number of colors on a computer monitor, the number of generations since Adam and Eve, 8 cell divisions of mitosis, I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 256 is the magic number of the bible, not 248. Nathan Solo, prodigious savant.

  23. Joel

    @ Nathan Solo – 256 is the maximum human life span in what unit of measure? And the minimum number of colors on a computer monitor would be one (I’m old enough to have owned an amber and a green monochrome monitor). 256 generations from Adam and Eve – which generation are you referencing? Just curious, not hating.

  24. Michael Shingleton

    Whether or not the “everything” theory is true, you can experience it by simply putting all your attention and intention on the sound of your breath. All sound disappears or dies into stillness. The subtle sound of the breath likewise fades out into a space where the in-breath ends and before the out-breath begins and vice versa. In this space is an experience of everything.

  25. Mirza

    The E8 is a Lie!

  26. yiran

    rock climber and mathematics may be a good combination. on other hand how much frontal lobe are the rock climber uses, since monkey may as well climb a tall mountain.


    true/ false





    “if a theory disagrees with Experiment, then it is wrong” the late great Richard Feynman… “the one simple sentence captures the “essence of science”

    theory/ experiment… experiment/ theory…

    wishful thinking. fantasy …. fantasy in the UNIVERSITY does Not make it true?

    true / false. real/fake real/hoax.. yes/no. this one is Fake…

  28. Pamela Miles

    When I was single and people asked me what I was looking for in a relationship I would say ” I want to be as happy (grateful) to have met him as he is to have met me.”

    When you realize everything you have, you’ve been given, you are in touch with true love.

  29. Resan

    continue with the the good work on the blog. I appreciate it. Could maybe use some more updates more often, but i’m quite sure that you have got better things to do , hehe. ;)

  30. AK

    Lisi has gone in right direction. But achieving this unified theory has more to do with developing the language in which we need to describe “continuty”
    Mathematics is a long standing language we and our forefathers used to describe the surroundings. But mathematics ends up discreetising.
    (So when we need to define a “space” around a point A, mathematics lets us say all “points” n “such that” “if” they “are” in near space to our point A, then n-1=A, where “1″ is a single point.)
    Some would add on all anti-points m in near vicinity such that m+1=A….. and so on……
    I think the ultimate test of our language (and indeed our imagination) is to describe space around a point.(or for that matter define a point)
    The mathematics and its vocabulary that we use is insufficient. The same one (1) that we understand to be discrete composite thing can also mean a transition from nothing to something less than two things.or not a nothing or……

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