Not the Tao of Physics, nor the TOE of Physics—But Logan’s Run?: Surfer Physicist Garrett Lisi’s E8 Solution to the Theory of Everything is Beautiful—But Where are the Exits?

The Telegraph of London had an exceptionally clear discussion of physicist Garrett Lisi’s E8 solution to the “Theory of Everything.” Money quote: 

Lisi’s inspiration lies in the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 – a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.

E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional. Lisi says “I think our universe is this beautiful shape.”

What makes E8 so exciting is that Nature also seems to have embedded it at the heart of many bits of physics. One interpretation of why we have such a quirky list of fundamental particles is because they all result from different facets of the strange symmetries of E8.

Lisi’s breakthrough came when he noticed that some of the equations describing E8’s structure matched his own. “My brain exploded with the implications and the beauty of the thing,” he tells New Scientist. “I thought: ‘Holy crap, that’s it!'”

What Lisi had realised was that he could find a way to place the various elementary particles and forces on E8’s 248 points. What remained was 20 gaps which he filled with notional particles, for example those that some physicists predict to be associated with gravity.

Physicists have long puzzled over why elementary particles appear to belong to families, but this arises naturally from the geometry of E8, he says. So far, all the interactions predicted by the complex geometrical relationships inside E8 match with observations in the real world. “How cool is that?” he says.

The crucial test of Lisi’s work will come only when he has made testable predictions. Lisi is now calculating the masses that the 20 new particles should have, in the hope that they may be spotted when the Large Hadron Collider starts up. 


And here is what the E8 geometrical lattice looks like in two dimensions:



If Lisi proves right, that on this E8 lattice the universe is hung, then it’s hard not to make all the traditional mythic associations between circles and eternity—as in the “Jeweled Net of Indra” etc.

From a Western vantage, some are already calling the E8 lattice “Ptolemy’s revenge.”

Stay tuned for a religion built someday around this image.

But for myself, I find the visually perfect symmetry of the E8 unnerving—and it’s very name—E8—as something seemingly beautiful, but actually quite sinister, as if part of the carousel in the sci-fi classic, Logan’s Run

If, afterall, we are all embedded in an intricate lattice, doesn’t this mean, ultimately, that we are inside a prison?

Isn’t this the binding Urizen of Blake’s poetry?

And isn’t this a bit like living in China—where there’s a lot of breathtaking, symmetrical, and grand architecture, but the non-conforming individual—and freedom—is somehow lost in all the hoopla?

Who will climb onto the E8 lattice and say, “Don’t forget the suffering on which this thing is built!”—as this guy did during the Olympics:



In short, the E8 may prove to be the garish symmetrical cross—or flawless Promethean rock—on which our bodies of flesh are hung—but this doesn’t tell us how we should then cope with our existence—and what we should do with ourselves.

I suspect an enterprising artist will hang an image of Jesus—or Garrett Lisi—crucified on the E8 soon, and sell the piece at auction.

But for me, looking at the E8 lattice makes me want to grouse about in a small cabin beside Walden pond, or read Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, or Ruskin’s aesthetic meditations opposed to symmetry in architecture.

Thanks, Garrett Lisi, for working out the details of our collective prison map—but could someone now tell us if there are any exits?

E8 feels like yet another corporate logo you can’t escape from—God’s Nike swoosh.  

The Telegraph article appeared in November of 2007, and can be read in full here:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Not the Tao of Physics, nor the TOE of Physics—But Logan’s Run?: Surfer Physicist Garrett Lisi’s E8 Solution to the Theory of Everything is Beautiful—But Where are the Exits?

  1. Pingback: 3-D for Real: Do We Live in a Holographic Universe? « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Was Keats Right? Surfer-Physicist Garett Lisi’s TED Talk | Prometheus Unbound

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