Surfing the Universe

This week’s New Yorker has a quite good article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells entitled “Surfing the Universe” about Garrett Lisi and the controversy generated last year by his paper An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything (which I wrote about here). Unfortunately the article is not available on-line as far as I know.

One of the main themes of the piece is how Garrett ended up getting enmeshed in the controversy over string theory. I’m quoted as agreeing with the writer’s impression that one thing that got Garrett “enlisted in the string wars” was having my name appear first in his acknowledgements:

“It was probably not the most politic thing to do,” Woit said.

The description of the state of the string theory controversy is pretty accurate. Wallace-Wells got the following from Steven Weinberg

String theory still has great attractions, and there aren’t any alternatives… Well, there are alternatives and they’re worse.

and describes the situation as follows:

In physics, as in politics, the competition is crueller in lean times. “In terms of development of new theories, it has been maybe the slowest period in two centuries,” the science historian Spencer Weart said. By 2006, the fight over string theory had begun to leak out of the scientific community. Smolin and Woit published widely reviewed books criticizing string theory, and USA Today published an account of the assault headlined “HANGING ON BY A THREAD?”

The article explains the role of the arXiv and the blogs:

In recent years, as science reporters and interested amateurs have turned to the arXiv – and as some physics personalities have started blogs – the audience for physics has both expanded and fragmented. “I know for a fact that many of the leading figures in the field read the blogs, but so do high-school science students,” Woit, the Columbia mathematician and string-theory critic, said. “The scary thing is that frequently you can’t tell which is which.” The leading blogs have readerships that, while including some loud dissenters, tend to align with the perspectives of their authors – Distler, of the University of Texas, has a blog that attracts many string theorists and enthusiasts, while Woit’s blog draws more skeptics. It works somewhat in the way the blogosphere operates in politics. Andreas Albrecht, a physics professor at the University of California at Davis, said that the blogs had opened physics to a new sort of populism, one that the academic establishment had to figure out how to manage. “It just pushes thoses buttons,” Albrecht said. “There’s some really good stuff, but a lot of really sloppy stuff.” What you have, in other words, is the erosion of the referee and the rise of a scientific underclass.

The above quotes are from passages about the string theory controversy and ones where I had some involvement, but that’s only one aspect of the piece. There’s quite a lot more about Garrett, his story, and the physics/math context he is working in, together with a reasonable take on its significance, with everyone acknowledging that the ideas he is pursuing have problems and are still not such that success can be claimed. At the end of the article, Garrett explains that he’s still at work, now trying to see if an alternate form of E8 will work better.

Update: Lubos has the usual sort of rant about this. He doesn’t seem to have access to the article itself, so is basing his rant on my extracts. As a result, it includes an extensive personal attack on Spencer Weart….

Update: I hear that Bert Kostant has posted on his office door at MIT a copy of his e-mail exchange about E8 with the author of the New Yorker piece. So I guess that it’s all right to point to these files. Also, there’s an on-going Distler/Lisi exchange going on here. I haven’t followed the technicalities of this particular discussion, but the trademark Distlerian argumentation tactics are in operation, ensuring vastly more heat than light.

Update: It turns out that not everyone involved in that e-mail exchange had given their permission to make it public, so the files linked to above have been removed. Kostant has made his comments public, posted here.

Update: The New Yorker article is now available on-line.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

71 Responses to Surfing the Universe

  1. Aaron Bergman says:

    Is Kostant really saying that Lisi is the first to use E_8 as a gauge group? Perhaps he means one of the noncompact forms? Otherwise, the statement is simply false.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Maybe he did mean the non-compact form, but in general I’m afraid Kostant is not a reliable source about many topics in physics. He’s one of the greatest figures in representation theory, responsible for some fantastic stuff, but he’s not a physicist. This isn’t really unusual among mathematicians, I’ve more than once run into excellent mathematicians with an interest in physics who were under the impression that the Standard Model was a supersymmetric QFT.

  3. Kea says:

    Kostant was careful to point out to the reporter that he was not a physicist, so one must forgive him his errors in this regard.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    Rereading Kostant’s e-mail (see link in update above), I noticed that he did also write “I remind you that I am not a physicist and cannot comment one way or another on the physics involved”.

    The most interesting thing I saw in the Kostant e-mail was his story of meeting Einstein shortly before his death, and being told that Einstein thought Lie groups would turn out to be very important.

  5. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Dear Peter,

    Since you haven’t followed the technicalities of the Distler/Lisi exchange, how can you possibly know that there is more heat than light? It seems to me the exact opposite. Distler has devoted a great deal of time and effort trying to understand Lisi’s proposal and is trying to get him to make clear and correct mathematical statements. It is one of the few exchanges on this topic where there is actually some mathematical substance rather than just discussions of sociology. I think your attitude towards Distler has blinded you to this fact. I do think that David Gross had the most appropriate quote in the New Yorker article when he said that he was “extremely reluctant to add fuel to this silly story.”

  6. Peter Woit says:


    I have extensive personal experience engaging in on-line discussions with Distler, and have found them to be mostly a waste of time due to his unprofessional behavior. I took a quick look at the Distler/Lisi exchange, and it seemed to be pretty much more of the same, with no sign of an honest attempt to deal with the arguments Lisi was making. In any case, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, I’m not a big fan of the project of trying to fit known symmetries into a larger simple group. If Lisi can get somewhere with it, great, but I’d rather spend the limited time I have thinking about other things. For those who are interested, I put the link there to follow, but just was reporting the impression I got from it.

    Speaking of unprofessional behavior, I’m really getting thoroughly sick of people like you who seem to think that posting anonymous comments on blogs about physics criticizing others is a legitimate form of behavior for a scientist to engage in. Either be willing to take responsibility for what you write and put your reputation on the line behind it, or knock it off.

  7. Aaron Bergman says:

    I understand all that about Kostant who certainly is a great mathematician. It’s just somewhat dismaying that this sort of misinformation can get out there.

  8. H-I-G-G-S says:


    I was simply pointing out the inconsistency between your statements that “I haven’t followed the details” and now your most recent “I took a quick look” and your claim that Distler adds more heat than light and doesn’t deal with Lisi’s arguments. He does deal with Lisi’s arguments, and adds a great deal of light, but there is simply no way you can tell this unless you are willing to enter into the technical details and have more than a quick look. It’s very superficial of you to jump to conclusions when you don’t understand the substance of the argument.

    As for your being sick of my posting anonymously, I assure you I find your constant complaints about it equally tiresome. And no, I see nothing at all unprofessional about what I am doing.

  9. anonymous spiritually old man says:


    In his papers Kostant is careful about what he says. His papers are wonderful to learn from because they are carefully organized, detailed and precise, as well as deep. Something posted on his office door is presumably meant for the consumption of his near neighbors, and perhaps with it he has not taken the care he does with his papers. And, as the example of Serge Lang shows very well, an expert in one area can be a fool in another (although I would not accuse Kostant of this), particularly if he lets himself believe that the area in which he is expert is fundamentally more difficult or more fundamental than are other areas, or he lets himself believe that he is the intellectually honest one in a sea of scoundrels.


    Distler’s exchange with Lisi seems to me quite reasonable. You do yourself no favors by characterizing it another way without having read it. Lisi claimed something that can’t be, and Distler explains pretty clear what it is and why it can’t be, and to ignore this is to stick one’s head in the sand; to his credit Lisi doesn’t ignore it. I find Lisi an appealling character, but one a lot like a lot of folks I have known, who does not appear to have written a solid, careful paper of the sort I like to see. It seems for this last reason that he has inpsired the wrath of the experts; this is human if not always nice – but it is natural that people that work hard, take care, think deeply, etc. get peeved when some guy who has perhaps not taken as much care finds is on the front pages ballyhooed as having done what they have not. Many experts are like small children emotionally.

  10. Peter Woit says:


    I did read Distler’s exchange, or at least enough of it to see that he was engaging in the same argumentative tactics that I have extensive personal first-hand experience dealing with. For a good example, take a look at this, from one of the first postings on my blog more than four years ago:

    Jacques started out insulting me anonymously, but his style was just too recognizable, so he stopped doing that. His argument was much like his one with Lisi, that the person he was arguing with was ignorant and didn’t understand a technical point about chirality that an expert like himself did. Except in the 2004 case I was well aware of the technical issue he going on about, it was just not relevant to the argument I was making (that we don’t understand nonperturbatively the electroweak interactions, since we don’t have a good way to handle that kind of chiral gauge theory).

    Anyway, in the 2008 case, maybe his complicated representation theory argument shows that Lisi has a problem with getting a chiral theory. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, that doesn’t interest me enough to work through the details. Maybe Distler is right on the technical point, and doing science a service in working this out. Maybe his technical point is irrelevant. I don’t know. I’ll stick to my characterization though of how he chooses to argue points like the one in question here.

  11. ERic says:

    The whole Lisi story seems to me to have just been a media phenomena which was started on various blogs, given credibility by the comments of Smolin, and picked up by newspapers and television who liked the idea of an independent surfer dude being the next Einstein. Otherwise, there’s really nothing else there. The paper is wrong, and no different than 1000 other wrong papers that come along every day. The attention it received was completely unjustified. It’s sad to see Lisi strutting around now as though he’s actually done something.

  12. John Baez says:

    Are there any particularly interesting or inflammatory quotes by me in that New Yorker article? Apparently not, since nobody has mentioned any. But I’m curious: I don’t have easy access to a copy, and I’d like to know if my attempts to stay out of trouble succeeded.

  13. Aaron Bergman says:

    There’s only one quote by you (JB):

    “If a figure is so beautiful and intricate and clear, you figure it must not exist for itself alone,” John Baez, a professor of mathematics at the University of California Riverside, said. “It must correspond to something in the physics world.”

    Anyways, having finally found a copy of the article, really, there’s very little to it at all; it’s more of a profile than an article about physics. One can argue about various characterizations. Just to pick one, Lisi doesn’t use a trick or handwaving to incorporate three generations; he just doesn’t do it and expresses a vague hope that maybe triality might have something to do with it. Mainly, the real impression I get from the article is that the person most interested in making this part of the string wars is Lisi. Why didn’t Lisi get a postdoc doing Clifford algebras after writing a thesis on a subject completely unrelated to them or anything else in hep-th or gr-qc? String theorists. Why don’t string theorists like his theory? Because he uses loop quantum gravity techniques (which he doesn’t actually.) Or maybe because he acknowledged Peter Woit. Why was the audience at Davis not particularly impressed? Full of string theorists. It’s all a bit tiresome, but I suppose I only think that because I’m a string theorist.

  14. Because he uses loop quantum gravity techniques (which he doesn’t actually.)

    Right. What he does is mention that he has, or is imagining to have, a theory whose configuration space is entirely one of connections. But then, if so, it is some kind of superconnections.

    I agree with and would tend to promote the very constructive summary and outlook that Jacques Distler gives at

    which ends with:

    That said, there is something kinda cool about the elements of the construction:

    1. An embedding of Spin(d−1,1) in G gives a Z_2 grading on 𝔤.

    2. Using the corresponding Schreiber superconnection, one naturally gets a theory with fermions, corresponding to the odd generators of 𝔤, transforming as spinors Spin(d−1,1).

    It would be mildly interesting to see what sort of actions one could build with this construction.

    The punchline being: it’s not a working “theory of everything”, but there is an interesting idea used here which deserves to be further investigated.

  15. Tony Smith says:

    John, the New Yorker Garrett Lisi article is long (7 pages) so maybe I missed something, but I think that you did succeed in staying out of trouble. I don’t recall you being quoted directly, but Bertram Kostant was quoted a lot, and you were his host when he made the E8 talk that was widely seen on the web, so maybe you are indirectly there through him. I think the things that he said were interesting, such as:
    “… “Columbus made mistakes and thought he was in India. Lisi made a few errors, but this pales in significance to his possibly opening up a whole new world for exploration … E8 is like North America, South America, and the Pacific Ocean rolled into one. …[Lisi's]… daring … possibly creates an agenda for scientists for the next hundred years or more.” …”.

    Peter, as to Jacques Distler’s behaviour on n-Category cafe about Garrett Lisi (here I am avoiding any mention of substantive physics),
    Jacques Distler put up a post there (now deleted) saying:

    “”Ginsparg’s Law
    Summerizer wrote “Any phenomenologist or grand unified model builder would be absolutely flabbergasted that the discussion here is even taking place.”
    I suppose that now would be the time to invoke Ginsparg’s Law”
    Posted by Jacques Distler on July 19, 2008 4:23 AM …”".

    Following links that Distler put in that deleted post lead to such things
    xkcd comic number 386 (about a compulsion to correct people who are “wrong” on the internet)
    a (now deleted) paste number 63894 saying in part:
    “… More comments from Paul Ginsparg
    Jul 18, 2008 … Don’t they realize that this makes them look like chumps-by-association? . feel free to refer them to “my” law below …”.

    I wonder if Jacques Distler thinks of Bertram Kostant as a chump-by-association with respect to Garrett Lisi ?

    Tony Smith

  16. The New Yorker has the following “Abstract” online. Not sure how long until the full article is also online.

    Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Annals of Science, “Surfing the Universe,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008, p. 32
    July 21, 2008 Issue

    Lisi, Garrett;
    Theoretical Physics;
    String Theory;
    Science, Scientists;
    “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything”

    ANNALS OF SCIENCE about physicist Garrett Lisi’s “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” Writer describes Lisi giving a talk at a conference in Morelia, Mexico in June of 2007. The conference was attended by the top researchers in a field called loop quantum gravity, which has emerged as a leading challenger to string theory. Lisi believed that he had discovered what physicists call a Theory of Everything—a unifying idea that aims to incorporate all the universe’s forces in a single mathematical framework. Within four months, Lee Smolin, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity, said that Lisi had “one of the most compelling unification models” he had seen in years. Discusses the persistent legend of the hermit genius in physics, from David Deutsch to Albert Einstein. Lisi got his Ph.D from the University of California at San Diego and, at thirty-one, dropped out of academia. For almost a decade, Lisi moved on no fixed schedule between Maui, where he likes to surf, and the mountains of the West, where he snowboards. He worked intermittently, but mostly he tried to think about physics. Five months after the Morelia conference, Lisi published the theory in a paper called “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” in an online forum. In the acknowledgements to the paper, Lisi thanked Peter Woit, a Columbia mathematician, whose name signaled a declaration of partisan affinities. Woit is best known for his one-man campaign to discredit string theory. Describes string theory and Lisi’s skepticism of it. Describes Lisi’s personality, which is self-depreciating and ironic and not particularly hermitlike. Lisi feels that his isolation from the academic world gives him advantages over his contemporaries who need to publish regularly for the sake of career advancement. Describes how Lisi developed his theory, in particular, his use of the mathematical entity E8. (A circle has one degree of symmetry; a sphere has three; a space whose symmetries are described by E8 has two hundred and forty-eight.). Lisi discovered that he could plot all the universe’s components on E8. On the terrain of E8, he believed, general relativity and particle physics were no longer out of joint. Tells about the arXiv online forum where Lisi published his paper. Describes criticisms of Lisi’s theory, including Jacques Distler noting Lisi’s use of a mathematical trick to incorporate the second and third generations into his model. Tells about Lisi presenting his theory to professors and students at the University of California-Davis. More recently, Lisi has begun to feel a set of responsibilities—to the broader physics community and to those who supported him, but also to fully extending his ideas. Last May, he headed to the Perimiter Institute in Ontario as a visiting researcher.

  17. John Baez says:

    Thanks for giving my supposed quote, Aaron.

    What an unhappy quote! A fact-checker for the New Yorker send me an email with a lot of question including one about this, saying:

    Ben writes that you told him that if a figure is so beautiful and intricate and clear, you figure, it must not exist for itself alone. It must correspond to something in the physical world. Is this correct?

    to which I replied:

    I was trying to say that this is a feeling physicists often have. I was *not* trying to say I personally believe this!

    There’s no rational reason why something beautiful “must” correspond to something in the physical world. This “must” is more like an avid hope.

    but of course none of this came through. I also thoroughly dislike using the word “figure” in two such different ways, so close:

    If a figure is so beautiful and intricate and clear, you figure it must not exist for itself alone…

    More importantly, I would never call E8 a “figure”… maybe Wallace-Wells was focused on that famous figure of the root system of E8. Indeed, the fact-checker asked this question about E8:

    We say that its most common representation looks like a dense and precisely symmetric cloud of spider’s web, thousands of threads exploding out from hubs of concentric spheres. Is this okay?

    to which I replied

    Far be it from me to argue with a poet! Decide for yourself; here’s the picture.

    Oh well, at least they didn’t have me saying anything inflammatory or utterly ridiculous.

  18. moshe says:

    Aaron, I detect a case of bad attitude. Just admit it is all your fault, and we’ll be back to the glory days of physics, when patent clerks and surfer dudes revolutionized physics. It’s not that hard really, and with some luck we might get a cure for cancer also.

  19. Bee says:

    Gee, what happened to this thread since I last looked at it?

    Since I above mentioned Michael Nielsen, he just wrote a really great post on the question of openness in science and the Web 2.0, I can really recommend it.

  20. Michael Gogins says:

    Bee, thanks for the link to Nielsen’s post, which I have just read.

    Somewhat against Nielsen’s thinking, it’s much easier to become a productive programmer (I am a programmer, both commercial and open source) than it is to become a productive physicist (I am not one). And it’s much easier to see if open source software will build, or run, or do what you want, than to evaluate a physics paper, vet a grant proposal, or build a large particle accelerator. Therefore, part-time physicists have a much greater competitive disadvantage than part-time programmers. And FULL-time physicists are inherently expensive….

    It is true that online publication and collaboration are growing, but this whole Lisi discussion makes me think that anonymous posts are a major problem. If everyone had to sign their real name, I think a lot of hateful and useless posts would just go away. But would there be any useful posts left? Maybe just an informal enforcement against personal comments would do the job….

    I don’t expect the anonymous posts to go away until signing one’s posts costs nothing in terms of academic politics. Indeed, until posting online is seen as making a positive contribution to science.

    Michael Gogins

  21. Professor R says:

    Peter, I think there is a far better article on the Lisi paper in this month’s issue of Physics World. Or rather, there is a very nice article on the role of symmetry groups in particle physics, with an extremely brief description of the Lisi paper at the end.
    Which puts it into sensible context I think…it should have been discussed in this manner in the first place!