A group of engineers, physicists, biologists, chemists, and mathematicians were sitting together drinking beer and chatting, so the conversation wandered a bit. The topic got on somehow to the lottery, and then we all started relating our ultimate dreams: what would happen if one of us suddenly got a lot of money dropped into their lap?
Many of us decided we’d still be scientists or mathematicians, but do research that would never rely on a grant application again.
At least one of us decided we’d open up a commune or institute and invite in all the students and scientists who had interesting ideas, but who would never get a chance to get funding, much like the FQXi is doing these days (and what a good idea).
Still others said they’d leave science forever and just wander around the world.
I asked the table, why couldn’t we do both? Wander the world, do what we want, and still do science, if we had a lot of money? Several people almost immediately said that it was unusual for anyone to expect to ever publish any ideas in any journals without an affiliation or a set-up lab of some kind. The big-brother-aspect of affiliation was an important thing to consider. The impression was that where you publish from may be closely related to where you publish.
Which brings me to the buzz that’s surrounding e8 and Garrett Lisi’s work on a unified theory of everything. My last educational excursion into theoretical physics was over a decade ago, so I’m not qualified to comment on the details, problems, and successes of his unified theory across e8. But, he and I have some things in common: we have apparently gone to some of the same Burning Man festivals, we both share an interest in physics, and we’re generally non-traditional types of people. I don’t feel uncomfortable commenting on that.
I believe that a valuable contribution that Dr. Lisi is offering the world is the view that someone can live outside the mainstream and still love science and “do science”. Dr. Lisi can do his work on computers, and on paper, and seems to have various methods of support these days, but nobody would call them completely “mainstream”.
Lisi is a good example of how there might be ways of “doing science” that doesn’t require that one takes on a traditional trajectory in academia or industry. However, you’ll likely have to be dogged about it (Lisi’s been working at it for a decade), and pick a field that will be open to, and supported by, alternative ways of publishing ideas to your peers for pre-publication review.
An example of a mechanism for pre-publishing would be the site arXiv . When an author commits an article to arXiv, they are able to share papers and leave them open for searching. While it’s not peer-reviewed, it’s a good mechanism to expose your work to objective criticism while mountain biking at Wompy .