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ONE BIG THEORY: A Q & A w/ Surfing Scientist Garrett Lisi

| posted on July 22, 2010

It’s not everyday that a surfer floats around a theory in physics, let alone a Theory of Everything. That’s right, a Theory of EVERYTHING, abbreviated T.o.E. But Garrett Lisi is not your everyday surfer. And a T.o.E is not your everyday theory.

In simple laymen’s terms…forget it, there are no simple laymen’s terms for something as grand and abstract as ToE. This much we do know, a ToE attempts to explain all four of the fundamental forces of nature into one understandable and integrated theory of the universe: One big ToE.

In early November, 39-year-old surfer Garrett Lisi posted his theory called “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” on the Web at http://arxiv.org/abs/0711.0770 and the stories about this interesting man and his interesting theory have flooded the internet. This ToE is a big deal and has the scientific world both excited and agitated. One scientist has called it ‘huge joke’ while others are excited that such an attempt has been made by Lisi. Nobody can emphatically say anything until experiments testing Lisi’s theory play out.

Figuring this guy knows everything, or at least has a theory about it, I consulted with him about Rubik’s cube, OJ Simpson’s guilt or innocence and who will be our next President. It’s important stuff, so, I mean, why not ask, right? The Theory of Everything… it must cover a lot.– Scott Bass

HOW OLD ARE YOU?

I’m starting to desire a little more floatation than a wafer-thin 6’8″,
but I can still go off the lip without throwing out my back.

WHERE WERE YOU BORN?

Southern California.

WHEN DID YOU START SURFING?

I’ve always been in the ocean, since before I could walk. But I
didn’t surf much until I turned sixteen and got a VW bus — I’ve been hunting waves ever since.

DID YOU WATCH TV AS A KID?

Not much. Mostly ran around outside and played on the computer. Damn, I’m still doing the same.

WHAT IS YOUR SURFING PEDIGREE?

I’m competent.

My best moments…
Teahupo’o before it was on the map. Countless mornings at Honolua Bay. Many spots on Kauai I probably shouldn’t name. Eight years living at Windnsea. I drove the entire Pacific coast of Mexico a few summers ago. Surfed that big day at Ma’alaea in ’05, which blew my mind. I’d love to travel more; there are so many places I haven’t been… traveling is the best way to learn.

I don’t have the talent, time, or drive to compete — I’m in it for
the ride. I surf because it’s the most fun you can have on this planet.

ARE YOU A SPOILED PREP SCHOOL BRAT? YOUR BLOG SEEMED TO ALLUDE TO THIS.

Yes, I’m a spoiled prep school brat who spent thirteen years in
college then moved to Maui and lived in a van. My life hasn’t been a
difficult struggle, but it’s certainly been different.

WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL AS AN UNDERGRAD?

UCLA, UCSD, and UCSB.

WHERE YOU A STRAIGHT A-STUDENT?

Yes.

A PHD IN PHYSICS MEANS YOU ARE AMONG AN ELITE GROUP, AND YOU’RE A SURFER. WHEN DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN SUCH A SEEMINGLY MAMMOTH CONCEPT, THAT BEING THE ORIGIN OF EVERYTHING AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE UNIVERSE?

I’ve always been curious about the world, trying to figure out what
it’s all about. I read a lot of philosophy during high school, then
realized words were always going to fail. The universe is described
by mathematics, and that’s the best language to think in if you want
to figure out what’s really going on. Meditation brought me some
amount of inner peace, but physics and math allowed me to tackle the puzzle of reality intellectually. And, the more I learn, the more
beautiful it is. It draws me in.

DID YOUR PARENTS THINK YOU WERE A SURF BUM? OR ARE YOU A SURF BUM?

Yes, I’m a surf bum. I am a complete mystery to my parents. I got
straight A’s, didn’t do drugs, got a Ph.D., then took off for Maui
and never looked back. I care more about enjoying life and figuring
things out.

WHAT MOTIVATES DR. GARRETT LISI

I’m a hedonist, but a contemplative one. I want the deep pleasures in life. I want to look into a girl’s eyes and know she loves me. I want to understand what others have thought about life, and put the pieces together into a picture that makes sense. I want to paddle as hard as I can, drop into the pit, crank a bottom turn, and pull in under the lip as it throws out — and hoot like a madman after the ride. I want to figure out the pattern at the heart of the universe. And I want to lay twenty consecutive, fully laid out turns down a groomed black diamond on a carving board. So that’s what I do. I try to live my daydreams.

DID YOU PLAY ORGANIZED SPORTS AS A KID OR WERE YOU OFF SOLVING RUBIX CUBES?

No, I’ve never been one for team sports. They were mostly waiting
around, or running after a ball. And the cube is kind of boring, I
would just take them apart and put them back together. I like doing things that are hard.

CAN YOU BREAK DOWN YOUR THEORY OF EVERYTHING IN LAYMEN’S TERMS, OR IS IT TOO COMPLEX?

Imagine the most complicated and beautiful geometric shape you can, and then imagine this shape twisting and dancing over the four
dimensions of space/time we live in. Through quantum mechanics, this dance unfolds in all possible ways, and you experience one of them. All the things we see are aspects of this shape, and the dance is how they move.

DO YOU THINK BEING LABELED A SURFER DUDE AFFECTS THE WAY SCIENTISTS VIEW YOUR THEORY?

No, if the math is right and the physics is good, that’s all
scientists care about. It’s a wonderfully unbiased community — all
that matters is ideas. I only wish it were as welcoming the other way
around, for a haole physicist paddling out at V-land.

DOES THAT LABEL ANNOY YOU?

No, I’ve been a surfer all my life.

DOES YOUR THEORY GAINING POPULARITY HAVE ANYTHING TO DO W/ TIMING?

Probably.

DID ANY OF YOUR THEORY COME TO YOU WHILE SITTING ON YOUR BOARD WAITING FOR A WAVE?

My mind floats over all sorts of things while I’m in the lineup. But
usually I’m too busy triangulating position and playing the crowd to
put together a long string of thought.

THE WAVE IN THE PHOTO I SAW IN WHICH YOU ARE SURFING… A PRETTY GOOD SIZED WAVE. WHERE IS THAT?

Honolua on a good day. My girlfriend came too and was on the cliff
with a camera.

DO YOU THINK EINSTEIN WOULD HAVE SURFED GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY?

Definitely. He had a great appreciation for nature, but didn’t grow
up by the ocean.

WHO DO YOU LOOK UP TO?

I respect anyone who surfs better than I do and isn’t a dick about
it. And great scientists of course — Schrdinger in particular was a
hell of a guy. And you know that pale kid, J.o.J., who paddles out
into the biggest waves he’s ever seen, gets utterly worked, and keeps coming back for more? I respect that kid.

WHO WILL YOU VOTE FOR PRESIDENT, IF GIVEN THE CHANCE RIGHT NOW, WITH ALL THE CONTENDERS ON THE BALLOT?

Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton’s love child.

WHAT NEWSPAPERS OR MAGAZINES DO YOU ENJOY READING?

New York Times, Physical Review D, Slashdot, Surfer Mag, Communications in Mathematical Physics, … you know, the usual.

DO YOU WATCH THE SIMPSONS?

No, I think what OJ did was terrible.

YOU SURF, YOU WIND SURF, YOU SNOWBOARD…COMMENT ON THE
DIFFERENT STATES OF MIND YOU ARE IN WHEN YOU DO THESE SIMILAR YET DIFFERENT ACTIVITES. ARE THEY THE SAME?

They require a similar flow of focus and balance, yes. But the skills
required and the overall experience are very different for all three.
Windsurfing is great because there’s camaraderie in the waves,
instead of competition. And snowboarding is solitary bliss — the
experience is very peaceful while still being intense. I like surfing
the most, but I’m spending a lot of time snowboarding now because I don’t like crowds and I love the mountains. But I’ll always be a
surfer.

YOUR T.o.E. IS GOING TO BE PUT TO THE TEST HERE SOON. IF YOUR ToE GETS DEBUNKED OR REFUTED OR SHOT DOWN, DOES THAT MEAN YOU HAVE T.o.E. JAM?

No, but that’s the name for when it gets stuck.

You can expect many string theorists to try and shoot my T.o.E. down. But it’s only when and/or if it doesn’t agree with experiment that it’s ToEtaled…wink, wink.