Lisi submitted a paper on a theory of everything. Lee Smolin added him to his short list of 17 "geniuses" (which included 5 people whom Smolin hasn't slept with; I make no statements whether Lisi belonged to that group) – crackpots who were Smolin's "proteges" and hopefuls to become the "next Smolin" i.e. the world's most celebrated crackpot at a given moment. This "endorsement" was clearly sufficient for tons of low-brow journalists to run stories about a surfer dude who revolutionized physics.
The paper boasted Lisi's ability to notice some of the basic relationships among the Lie group \(E_8\) and its subgroups – Lisi was demonstrably unfamiliar with most of the basic facts from this class even several years after his preprint – and he distorted many of the group-theoretical facts underlying GUT quantum field theories and heterotic string theory model building to "incorporate" gravity into the "grand unified force" in unorthodox, namely wrong, ways. A key tool to sell the paper was a simple visualization of the weights of \(E_8\). The model suffered from some elementary flaws that a good graduate student could have seen within minutes. He misunderstood – and the model ignored – the spin \(j=2\) of the gravitons and the chirality of the Standard Model fermions, among many other basic things.
You may check that despite the astronomical amount of hype, the paper only has 34 citations as of now, so it still hasn't even become "well-known" according to the INSPIRE's terminology, and chances are that this wouldn't be enough to find a postdoc job if he were a grad student. Needless to say, most of the followups are worthless preprints by themselves and in average, such a paper has less than 5 citations.
It's 2014, there's no Lisi hype in the media, and I don't expect that many readers still misunderstand that Lisi's papers are just piles of cr@p. Even Smolin and Woit – who were employed as general secretaries of the crackpot movement in 2006 – have thrown their friend Lisi under the bus at some point – while promoting other crackpots and other old and new delusions that they will only throw under the bus after many more years, when the cr@piness of those things will become way too self-evident.
Instead, let me talk about the sociological issues mentioned in the interview.
Is he sorry about the attention seven years ago? Lisi says that the attention was "very very strange" but it was also "fun". Crazily enough, he says that the attention was bad for the development of the theory. In other words, he seems to blame the fact that nothing has come out of his paper on the media storm itself.
Needless to say, this is completely preposterous. Every publicity, especially positive publicity, is a good publicity. If some paper is mentioned in the media, many more people – including physicists – will look at it. The real problem here is that the paper is rubbish, so the more people look at it, the more it is well-known why it is rubbish.
He's surfing on Hawaii again. Good for him.
Lisi describes some basics of the spectrum of the Standard Model, the Grand Unified Theories, and his love for \(E_8\). And he sort of immediately says that some group embedding of a subgroup inside \(E_8\) should describe three families. It doesn't really work but it fails to work for other reasons than Lisi says. All the technical comments are noise in which the density of clearly invalid propositions is so high that it makes no sense to respond. At the end, I decided not to correct his claims about the meaning of triality and its possible implications. A TRF reader would need some background but with this background, he may probably see what's wrong about Lisi's triality claim himself.
He also tries to claim that he is making "progress" – adding even more preposterous "appendices" to the already nonsensical 2007 paper.
When asked about Witten, Lisi says that Witten wrote impressive and beautiful papers and we also learn that
He, his students, and his colleagues have dominated the high-energy theoretical physics community with string models for decades now.That's a cutely demagogic formulation. String theorists are described as "he, his students, and his colleagues" (in this order) to make the reader believe that it's some kind of a family business or corporation of Edward Witten – to make the reader think in terms of some conspiracies. The truth is that virtually all string theorists are as independent of Edward Witten as you can get and people have studied this remarkable theory because it's so remarkable.
However, even the most enlightened foresight from the most brilliant mind can be wrong, so it would be better if he wasn’t a dick about it.Right, they can be wrong, but using the word "dick" for the most cited physicist in the world isn't a sufficient piece of evidence to establish (or to convincingly argue) that something about the string-theoretical description of the Universe is invalid.
A huge paragraph is dedicated to deluded conspiracy theories and downright lies claiming that string theory lost the contact with reality, it must be wrong even though he can't give any evidence of a problem, and all this rubbish. String theory is described as a "postmodernist monstrosity" – that's quite bizarre to hear from a protege of the community beloved by Evelyn Fox Keller and similar postmodern pseudointellectual trash. Lisi criticizes the fact that the progress in string theory was driven by its inner momentum – but that's exactly how it works when the science has some intrinsic value. When a theory doesn't have any intrinsic value and produces no interesting results and no explanations of anything that make sense, it's being promoted by external excrements such as John Horgan, and that's the case of (not only) Garrett Lisi's "ideas". This disgusting paragraph culminates with the sentence
I escaped to Maui to get away from the train wreck.Time for your pills, surfer dude. You have never been inside the train in your life and you're arguably incapable to jump on that train – i.e. to learn everything that is needed to actually do string research. So you're just trying to find excuses for your handicap – the train must be a train wreck, right? Well, it's not. You try to implicitly sell the populist suggestion that everyone may become a string theorist if he wants – except that this claim has really nothing to do with the reality.
The next paragraph enumerates dozens of crackpot papers that could be "alternatives to string theory", along with their authors. Of course, they may only "keep" this "chance" to be alternatives to strings if no one actually looks at them carefully. Otherwise they would follow the example of Lisi's own "huge" crackpot paper. All the fashionable comments about the string theory's competitors are only superficial rhetorical tricks to make the gullible people believe that there could be alternative theories. In reality, none of these things is able to pass even the simplest checks. There are no known alternatives to string theory.
He talks about his SUSY bet against Frank Wilczek that should be decided on July 8th, 2015. He thinks that "he is very likely to win". I am not quite sure. Collisions at the significantly higher energy will begin in April, a small amount of data may be enough to see the new physics, and announcements may very well be out before the early July.
In the next paragraph, he says that
if we replace string theory by deformed Lie groups and representation theory, we'll have this wrapped up before lunch.It must have been difficult to live for those 7 years without a lunch. To see absolutely no positive news or positive progress on his proposals despite the millions of people including thousands of surfer dudes (and potential researchers) who have been exposed to the omnipresent gospel about the new theory of everything. Meanwhile, since 2008, e.g. Witten has collected over 1,000 citations just on papers written after 2007, and tens of thousands on all papers.
Lisi says that he misses universities but he clearly finds surfing, kitesurfing, hiking, and paragliding more important so I don't think that he would be ready to work. At the end, we learn that he is acting as a degree-non-granting institution running science hostels where you may pretend to "do science" while you are surfing etc.
Twenty years ago, research scientists were anchored to academic libraries and laboratories. The internet has now set them free. Where can they go? What is an ideal theoretical research environment? I think we need something like artist retreats, but for scientists.It's not true that destinations attractive for tourists only became the place to do science in recent 20 years. Heisenberg has found his picture of quantum mechanics on Heligoland, a truly romantic island in the North Sea. The first superstring revolution of 1984 was announced in Aspen, Colorado. Famous schools would be taking place in Les Houches and lots of other attractive places near pretty mountains and sexy beaches.
But at the end, whatever the environment is, there is a difference between surfing (or other relaxing activities) and doing physics. The environment is ultimately secondary for everyone who does some serious research because he or she is focused on the work and its finest details. Nothing has really changed about those things in recent decades. Nothing has changed about the difference between solid science and pseudoscience, between robust content and hype, between actual progress and vacuous promises. And the previous sentence contains too many bad news for Garrett Lisi!