Categories / Outside

On becoming violently ill in a foreign land, and other joys

It’s difficult to say for certain, but if you look closely at the illustration immediately to the left, you might conclude that it is a rendering of a man, in silhouette, bent over and having just vomited (and quite possibly standing in the results). That man is me. The fact that this is an apt illustration for the story to which it is attached is unlikely to encourage you to read the story. But so it is.

A while back, Outside GO magazine asked me if I had any travel philosophy that I might spin into an essay for their “Ready to Go” column. It turns out that I do have one, of sorts, and you can read about it in their Spring 2009 issue, or online here. To be honest I hadn’t grandiloquently referred to it as the One Great Thing(tm) philosophy before, and I often wondered whether it was driven more by laziness than wisdom. But I do practice it, and it works for me.

Lost in the editing was my disclaimer/hedge that while I have been on some rough trips, I haven’t been to any truly horrible places nor witnessed truly horrible things. I’m not, for instance, a war reporter. So take my travel wisdom, such as it is, as the musings of only a pseudo-professional journeyman.

The life of a surf bum physicist, PhD

In the latest May issue of Outside, I have a feature-length profile of Garrett Lisi, a physicist who came up with a potential unifying theory of physics while living in a van on Maui. (The piece is out on newsstands but not yet online.) The very bare bones of his theory, which he first published last November, involve fitting together the four forces of physics — the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and gravity — into an incredibly intricate shape called E8. Lisi was a challenging guy to capture, mostly because the ideas behind his theory are largely unintelligible to the almost anyone who (like me) lacks some — if not extensive — higher-level study of physics. It was clear as soon as I started delving into it that the stories hyping Lisi as “the next Einstein,” or what have you, were doing so with only the flimsiest of notions of whether he is, or even could be, right.

Interestingly, Lisi himself pretty much seemed to feel the same way. He was ambitious in his aims but modest about his chances of succeeding. As he told me — and several extremely accomplished academic physicists agreed — his theory had at best maybe a 5% chance of being at least partly right. So I ended up trying to play around with this notion of “the next Einstein” (as you can see in the cover line) and use it to focus in on what I found most fascinating about Lisi: that despite his ambitions, he refuses to compromise his lifestyle.

It was also interesting to see the divide among physicists when Lisi started showing up in the media last fall. On the one hand, the surprisingly caustic world of physics blogs made quite a show over having to waste precious time debunking such a crank. On the other, I talked to quite a few physicists (including a Nobel Prize winner) who said some version of, “hey, he’s probably not right, but he’s got some good ideas and does proper math, so who cares if he gets a bit too much press? New ideas are always for the good.” Which struck me — at least as an outsider to the community — as a healthier approach. In any case, no physicist who had actually bothered to talk to Lisi actually thought he even remotely approached being a crank. In fact, they all seemed to kind of admire his outsider approach. He certainly wouldn’t be the first physicist to make contributions working outside of academia.