Natures zoo of elementary particles is not a random mishmash; it has striking patterns and interrelationships that can be depicted on a diagram corresponding to one of the most intricate geometric objects known to mathematicians, called E8. Image: Illustrations by Chad Hagen
- In 2007 physicist A. Garrett Lisi wrote the most talked about theoretical physics paper of the year. Outlets from the New Yorker to Outside magazine were drawn to the story, partly on account of his surfer lifestyle. Lisi and others have continued to develop the theory.
- Most physicists think reconciling Einstein’s general theory of relativity with quantum theory will require a radical shift in our conception of reality. Lisi, in contrast, argues that the geometric framework of modern quantum physics can be extended to incorporate Einstein’s theory, leading to a long-sought unification of physics.
- Even if Lisi turns out to be wrong, the E8 theory he has pioneered showcases striking patterns in particle physics that any unified theory will need to explain.
Modern physics began with a sweeping unification: in 1687 Isaac Newton showed that the existing jumble of disparate theories describing everything from planetary motion to tides to pendulums were all aspects of a universal law of gravitation. Unification has played a central role in physics ever since. In the middle of the 19th century James Clerk Maxwell found that electricity and magnetism were two facets of electromagnetism. One hundred years later electromagnetism was unified with the weak nuclear force governing radioactivity, in what physicists call the electroweak theory.
This quest for unification is driven by practical, philosophical and aesthetic considerations. When successful, merging theories clarifies our understanding of the universe and leads us to discover things we might otherwise never have suspected. Much of the activity in experimental particle physics today, at accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, involves a search for novel phenomena predicted by the unified electroweak theory. In addition to predicting new physical effects, a unified theory provides a more aesthetically satisfying picture of how our universe operates. Many physicists share an intuition that, at the deepest level, all physical phenomena match the patterns of some beautiful mathematical structure.
This article was originally published with the title A Geometric Theory of Everything.