I went for a walk early this morning, as I do most every morning. Some days I stick close to home, making my way to the nearby high school, with its ash-and-cinder track to remind me of my own school days, nearly thirty years ago.
Other days I get in the car and travel to a particularly beautiful walking spot. It’s called Westhampton Lake, a little pond nestled amidst the University of Richmond campus. As you might expect from one of the most expensive liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, Richmond has exceptionally well-tended grounds.
Today was one of those well-tended days.
Exiting the car, I looked out over the lake, watching the rising sun dance off the ripples in the water. About a half mile or so in circumference, the lake has one feature of which I am especially fond. A small island in the middle, topped with a charming little gazebo.
To get to the island, you have to traverse a foot bridge which first arches gently up from shore, then descends back down as it nears the island. You’ve seen this bridge before, I’m certain of it.
Well, perhaps not this exact bridge, but you have seen one so nearly like it as to be indistinguishable. It’s in every single Monet painting of the Japanese foot bridge at Giverny. I mean, exactly like it, down to the reeds and foliage at the banks of the water Monet captured so well.
If I had to qualify this statement at all, it would be to add only this minor quibble. The reflection of the light and colors in the water’s ripples resembled Sisley’s Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne more than anything Monet ever painted. An exceedingly small point in the grand scheme of things, however.
As I began my walk, I felt as though I were entering a century-old canvas. Truly life imitating art, as they say.
There is a surfer making waves in the world of theoretical physics. His name is Garrett Lisi, 39 years old, with a doctorate from the University of California at San Diego. He has no current academic affiliation, and is, in fact, unemployed. Until recently he had been living in his van catching waves in Hawaii. That, or snowboarding in Colorado when the powder fell.
Lisi published a paper last year called “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything." The Theory of Everything is the Holy Grail of theoretical physics, connecting quantum physics and gravitation to form a unified field theory that describes all fundamental interactions that physicists observe in nature. That is, if it’s ever found
Einstein spent decades trying to solve the Theory of Everything. He never did it.
Lisi is making a go at it this time by relying on something called E8, the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics. E8 is a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after computations, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.
When mapped to a two-dimensional space, such as my computer’s screen, it looks like perhaps the most elegant Spirograph I have ever seen. According to Lisi, “I think our universe is this beautiful shape.”
He may be right. One of the things that makes E8 so exciting is that the structure seems to lie at the heart of cutting-edge particle physics. So far, all the interactions predicted by the complex geometrical relationships inside E8 match with observations in the real world. Indeed, all known elementary particles and forces can be mapped directly to one of the 248 symmetrical “facets” of the E8 structure.
"How cool is that?" Lisi says.
And with 20 or so E8 points left over, many feel that the structure will predict as-yet undiscovered particles which may come to light when the Large Hadron Collider starts up in Switzerland next year.
If and when that happens, people will say that life -- or more specifically, our observation of life -- has verified science.
Which is my long-winded way to get to the point of this writeup. Monet had a vision. So did Lisi. That’s why they’re called visionaries.
Monet conveyed his vision to a canvas over a hundred years ago, and I saw that vision come to life this morning walking by the lake
Lisi conveyed his vision to a massively complex series of mathematical equations. If all goes as he hopes, we will see his vision come to life sometime next year.
Why does life imitate Monet’s art, but verify Lisi’s work? Indeed, the word verify conveys a sense of the subordinate, as if Lisi’s complex equations somehow serve only to explain and justify some aspect of the real world with which we are as yet unfamiliar.
Why doesn’t life imitate Lisi’s work, as well? Don’t his elegant equations, and the beautiful visual maps they create, deserve to be treated as “art” in and of themselves? Why must they serve the real world, instead of the other way around?
Why isn’t science art? The answer is simple.
I think it is.