MC: Garrett, first off, thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you. I am excited about the opportunity, mostly because I want to ask the very first question. I hope many of my students read the answer and that the different way in which you approach life inspires them to think about they way their approach their own careers. After that, I just hope I figure out what to ask next.

For a moment, let’s forget that “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” is just a theory that you and many other brilliant minds are debating and refining. Let’s look at the upside — that after years of failed attempts by physicists to describe the universe entirely through string theory, you step in with a paradigm shift. Right or wrong, science needs radical new ideas. We really only move forward when we discover previously unconsidered ways of looking at the world. So, whether your theory works out in the end, you achieved something magnificent.

So, why you? Why a surfer instead of a nerd? Why not one of the countless throngs of violin playing Ivy League physicists who spend fewer of their days figuring out how to fit a toilet in the van, and where to park it at night to siphon internet access? (Let me know if I’m recounting the last part incorrectly.) Why not somebody who can’t spend their time jumping out of a helicopter onto a steep slope because they didn’t grow up developing that particular talent? Why not somebody who instead spends that time…thinking even more about science? What about who you are makes you the guy who even has a chance to reshape the world of theoretical physics?

GL: Just because I’m a surfer doesn’t mean I’m not a nerd. One simply can’t be happy working with equations all day, every day. It’s very important to get out in the world and play. We’re not machines. Well, maybe you are… But, anyway, most of us aren’t machines. And surfing and playing with friends keeps me happy, and it makes the time spent working in science that much more enjoyable, because I don’t burn out on it.

I’m not sure my experience of problem solving, throughout my life, has been so different from that of others, but I can describe it. As a student, it always felt like I was doing worse than my classmates during the beginning of courses. But then, towards the end, I always seemed to be doing better. And I eventually figured out why this was: my classmates were memorizing the class material, when I was actually trying to understand it. Understanding is harder than memorizing, but it builds on previous understanding, when memories just fade.

I also used to go off on a lot of tangents. Some of these tangents, which I might work on for hours or many days, would take me a way from spending time on the required material. But it turns out following tangents on my own was a good thing, because that’s more like what actual research is like. As an undergraduate, I would repeatedly go to a professor with a bunch of equations and graphs I had been playing with, thinking I was playing with something new. They would invariably smile and point out that this stuff was well known, and point me to books that covered it. But in grad school I would follow some tangent and people wouldn’t have seen it before. I’d have to do a literature search, and find out someone had done the same thing in a paper, thirty years ago. It was kind of frustrating. But, eventually, you’re following a tangent, and you find something cool that no one has done before, even if others have come close, and that becomes your PhD thesis. Then, as a researcher, you can build a whole successful research program out of finding new tangents and building on them. That’s been my experience, anyway.


MC: Much is made of your status as a “maverick” — somebody working outside the traditional academic path. What would you describe as the advantages in taking this different approach to your career?

GL: Working outside academia has advantages and disadvantages. The two largest disadvantages are a lack of prestige and not having colleagues nearby to bounce ideas off of. Colleagues can sometimes tell you very quickly when ideas have been tried before, or summarize what’s going on in other fields. Working on your own, you have to figure these things out yourself. But, sometimes this is an advantage, as you can find cases where the “lore” was wrong, without people around to discourage you. And the lack of prestige correlates with an unusual freedom to explore whatever ideas you wish, without the pressure to follow an established research program. Overall, living as an academic outside academia is a harder path, but it can be a rewarding one, because of the flexibility it allows.


MC: You discuss your theory in online physics forums and you are one of the pioneers of what you describe as “open source science”. Describe the ways in which social software propels your work forward. Do you think the advantages of social software will allow more scientists to take their research outside of academia to enjoy the advantages of freedom while avoiding the downside of lacking institutional resources (including proximity to quality colleagues)? On the same front, how do you see the upcoming evolution of academic institutions as a result of social software?

GL: When I got my PhD ten years ago, I realized most of the resources I needed to do research were available over the net. Researchers are no longer anchored to university research libraries, as has been the case for hundreds of years. This is a huge change, and I took advantage of it by adopting a peripatetic lifestyle — deciding to “think locally, act globally.” Virtually all recent physics papers are available on the arXiv, people can keep in touch via email and social networks, and books and manuscripts may be easily digitized. Personally, the trickiest part of this transition was organizing my own research notes; but I’ve been using a LaTeX enabled wiki that has greatly improved my notes, and made them available for others. Many universities have “open courseware,” allowing students free access to courses at top schools. As academia opens up this way, I think students all over the world will benefit, and science will benefit as a result. To accommodate this new geographic freedom, I’ve been working on the idea of creating a Science Hostel — a more casual kind of research institute, where theoretical researchers could live and work on their projects in beautiful places.


MC: Did you grow up knowing that you would find a vocation in science, or did you head to college wondering what might inspire you once you got there?

GL: I never thought much about what I’d do for a job. And I was never lacking in inspiration. All I’ve ever done is follow my interests where they’ve led me. It’s been a fun ride. I may have spent too little time worrying about making a living, but I don’t regret it, because I’ve enjoyed having a lot of freedom. People should be able to do what they love.


MC: I’m going to be a mathematician for a moment and try to generalize…perhaps limiting the hostel network to scientists would be overlimiting…I mean…could I hang out at one in Maui while I work on my next book?!

GL: I consider mathematicians to be scientists, just a bit further from the lab; so mathematicians would certainly be eligible. The number of researchers in the “hosteling pool,” and the entrance restrictions, would rise and fall with the housing resources available. I think a good baseline qualification is “PhD or equivalent” and the potential contribution to science, so you’d qualify. A Science Hostel on Maui would be a perfect place to write a book — that happens to be my plan too.

(I am flattered that Garrett is under the impression that my qualifications are equivalent to those of a PhD.)


MC: Last question. This one is a little on the cookie-cutter side, but it’s the cookie-cutter question that came to mind after reading a little about the funding you’ve received that allows you to follow a such a different path from the traditional university physicist. Pretend for a moment that a billion dollars falls in your lap, and you survive the crushing weight of all that paper. Your job is to use that money to propel science forward. What kind of programs would you design?

GL: Wow, a billion dollars… think of the sweet lair I could build with that in Maui. After the lair, I think FQXi has set a good precedent for advancing science by giving money away efficiently and responsibly. Most basic science research is motivated by idealism, not by money. But money makes it possible. It would be great to establish a foundation that provided a comfortable living to any qualified researcher interested in spending their time working in math or science. Supported projects could include making new scientific software tools, improving the content of Wikipedia, writing books, science blogging, or even developing new branches of research — projects which don’t currently advance a career under the shortsighted metric of Impact Factor. With a billion dollars, we could provide support to about 3,000 people for ten years, and significantly improve the scientific landscape and the quality of life of scientists. This runs counter to the usual, politically correct philanthropic strategy of helping the needy; but many organizations like that already exist, and I think the world would be a better place if there was more support for the gifted, allowing extremely bright people to follow their dreams.

One Response to “Mathematics Interview With Garrett Lisi”

  1. Engineering Education » A Beautiful Universe says:

    [...] other day I discovered Garrett Lisi’s TED Talk.  My second favorite thing about the talk is seeing how Lisi’s imagination [...]

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