December 3, 2007

Stupidity Supernova, Part III

The past week or so has had one of the densest concentrations of dumb physics stories that I can remember. Sadly, this post got so big that I had split it up.

Surfer Guy
Garrett Lisi, a perfectly legitimate physicist without a research affiliation (but who is working under a grant from the FQXi) just produced some type of unified theory. I won't even pretend to know about this stuff, but based on the impressions I have seen, it seems promising, if not fully developed. Backreaction recaps it well. Nonetheless, someone got a hold of it, probably after glimpsing his glib title, (An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything), and spun it into a profile as intricately woven with exaggeration as E8 Lie algebras are woven with G2 and F4 subalgebras. (One would assume). Our old friends, the Telegraph and New Scientist got in the game with articles describing the shocking way in which this unlikely outsider has shook the very bedrock of physics with his mojito-fueled geometries. They buzz with the prospect that we might finally get another laid-back physics sage to inspire lazy youngsters, and consequently, drastically overstate the importance of this work.

I'm not very knowledgeable about grand unified theories, but one thing I do know is that there is no shortage of speculation. Evidently, this one looks fairly promising, but as with any, few of the testable predictions are completely worked out. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of work, and coming up with interesting models is what, in fact, often drives theory, since it forces others to examine how well we can fit consistent explanations to the real world. The problem with these news stories is that they present this work as though it dropped like a bomb in the physics world, when it dropped more like that video of OK Go dancing on treadmills. Everyone basically agrees that it is crafty and original, but won't really change anyone's daily life except maybe the people who choreograph treadmill dancing. And it will only catch on gradually, if/as people show it to be correct/hip.

I cannot emphasize enough that I'm not making fun of Lisi here. He is clearly pretty awesome. I wish that I was hardcore enough to write unification theories and impress FQXi (the x makes it seem cool). It is just a shame that writers feel any story along these lines has to have a huge personality component to be printable. It reminds me of Feynman with the bongo drums. He was always getting annoyed that journalists wanted to write about his hobbies -- saying that they needed a humanizing 'hook' for the biopic. Of course, as Feynman himself noted, science is the most human thing that humans do! Elephants can paint, but I've never seen one that could solve a differential equation.

Part I - Gregg Easterbrook: The Second 'g' is for 'gigantic moron'
Part II - Astronomers: Universe Killers
Part III - Surfer Physics
Part IV - Inane Physics Story Trajectories