Lee Smolin of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada, suggests some key qualities to look for. A deep understanding of physics is crucial, of course, but the trait that will define the next Einstein is something a little less scientific: daring. Einstein’s 1905 papers are breathtaking in ambition and scope, drawing on philosophy and thought problems as well as on the research of his time. The next Einstein will “come into physics and solve simultaneously a number of the key foundational issues, setting into motion great advances with immediate experimental implications,” Smolin says. Certainly the challenges are out there. Nobody has managed to reconcile quantum mechanics with the rules of Einstein’s general relativity, for instance; at a deeper level, we still do not even know why the laws of physics are the particular way they are.
With Smolin’s aid, DISCOVER has scoured the landscape and found six top candidates who show intriguing signs of that Einsteinian spark. Smolin is too modest to say so, but he might qualify as a seventh; with physicist Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara (our number-five pick) he works on loop quantum gravity, a promising, left-field approach to making peace between the quantum and relativity worlds.
Like Einstein, these six researchers “are over and over again stimulating us with new ideas, with new approaches to things that could be right,” Smolin says. But as Einstein cautioned, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” We on the sidelines are still waiting to see when and where that genius will strike next.
1. Garrett Lisi: Age 40, holds no faculty position but earned a Ph.D. at UCLA; lives off grants and software consulting. Body of work: Recently published “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” aiming to unify physics based on the geometry of a 248-dimensional figure called E8. This figure shows remarkable connections with known forces and particles. But Lisi’s equations may have problems with mass and spin. Einsteinian trait: “Surfer dude” Lisi is more of an outsider than the onetime patent clerk.
2. Stephen Hawking: 66, University of Cambridge, England. Body of work: Showed that black holes are not entirely black by studying quantum effects near a hole’s border, or event horizon, but his work has not yet sparked a fundamental revolution in physics. Einsteinian traits: Publicly worries about the big picture of our future; is the popular face of physics.