Interview: Garrett Lisi

Talking the vastness of the universe, some early research at Teahupoo, and the "Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" with the physicist/surfer.

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Physicist Garrett Lisi lives 1,200 feet up Maui’s Haleakala volcano, overlooking the island’s north and south shores. The land sits under the shade of an avocado orchard—and piles of surfboards—and serves as the home of the Pacific Science Institute. Lisi founded the institute after deciding he didn’t want to live the typical life of an academic, dealing with the attendant university politics and infighting. Instead he spent more than a decade drifting from one surf locale to the next, before publishing his 2008 “Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” a new attempt at understanding the physics of the universe, including aspects that had long baffled scientists. For a good portion of his time working on the theory, Lisi camped all over Maui, then finally settled on his current plot. Having realized the value of deemphasizing productivity over quality of life, Lisi now uses the institute as a place where some of the world’s leading scientists (and surfers) can do the same. “Rather than making people work harder we believe in providing a better environment,” he says. “Hopefully that inspires visitors to tackle hard problems.” Given Lisi’s own background contemplating the vastness of the universe, it seemed fitting to ask how he went about finding his place in it.


Aside from Hawaii, what were some of your early surf travels?

While I was in grad school, a friend emailed me and said I had to drop whatever I was doing, fly to Tahiti, and surf this amazing wave at the “end of the road.” I didn’t have classes that quarter, so I flew out and met him at the tree house where he was staying. For three weeks we surfed the most amazing waves. It was just us, a Frenchman, a wandering Aussie, and a Tahitian named “Caterpillar.” We had Teahupoo all to ourselves.


How did you decide where to plant yourself on Maui?

I was in Colorado and missing Maui, so I bought the largest van that would fit in a Matson shipping container and outfitted the interior as an RV, with cabinets, running water, bookshelves, LED lighting, and a rack to hold six surfboards. I spent the summer building it, met my girlfriend in San Diego, and we drove up the California coast. Then we shipped the van to Maui and spent a year camping wherever the surf was best.


Was it difficult giving up that mobility?

The van was a fantastic way to live—the ultimate in freedom. And for about a decade before that I lived all over the West. There are enormous houses that sit vacant for most of the year. If you have a good network of friends, you can housesit in spectacular places. But it is nice to have my own space now, and be able to share that with friends.

Some of the criticism was pretty mean spirited, but it was trash talk from physicists, and I’ve got thick skin. It’s not like getting chased in by a pack of angry locals.

It can’t have been all cush housesitting gigs.

Ha, definitely not. For about a month I lived in a yurt, far out in the jungle, in an area of Maui called Huelo. It was beautiful out there, but I couldn’t take all the rain, and I don’t like being more than 20 minutes from good surf. Another time, many years ago, I was traveling around the island on a bike, with one surfboard, a tent, and a sleeping bag. This was before cell phones, so I had no idea a hurricane was bearing down on the island. The winds started getting ridiculous before sunset and I didn’t have any hope in my tent. I biked by a golf course looking for shelter and found one of the cabanas was open. There were no books in there, except romance novels. I tried reading one—but let’s just say I would have been better off outside in the hurricane.


Tell me about the institute you’ve set up on your property. How is it unique in terms of its mission and who are some of the visitors?

If you’re a scientist, you can often work anywhere. As soon as I could get the money together, I bought a nice house here in Maui and have been operating it as a new kind of science institute. Since we opened a year ago we’ve had about 50 guests. Some of them are good surfers, and others don’t know which side of the board the wax goes on. It’s an interesting mix of people.


The response of some scientists to your “Theory of Everything” was highly critical. In your experience, who’s more protective of their turf: surfers or scientists?

The media attention the theory got back in 2008 was over the top. I said every chance I could that it wasn’t complete, but the media tends to portray things in black or white, and acted like I had everything figured out perfectly. A lot of physicists were pissed off, especially the ones working in string theory, which has been an utter failure. Some of the criticism was pretty mean spirited, but it was trash talk from physicists, and I’ve got thick skin. It’s not like getting chased in by a pack of angry locals. I’ve been working on the theory since then, and now I think I understand it better.
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