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Conversations with Maya: Frank Wilczek

Frank Wilczek, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate

Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of Society for Science and Executive Publisher of Science News, spoke with Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist, author and Nobel laureate. Wilczek has made seminal contributions to fundamental particle physics, cosmology and the physics of materials. His current research focus includes axions, anyons and time crystals, which are concepts in physics that he named and pioneered. Wilczek is an alumnus of the 1967 Science Talent Search (STS), a competition owned and produced by Society for Science. He serves on the Society’s Honorary Board.

How did competing in STS influence you?

It was quite an experience for me. I had rarely left my little neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. So traveling to Washington, D.C., was quite an expedition; I had never been on an airplane before. I had the opportunity to meet Glenn Seaborg — a real, living, breathing Nobel Prize winner — and met students from all over the country. The experience was very affirming. The most important gift that I got from STS was confidence.

After STS, you attended the University of Chicago at the age of 15, and you went on to do graduate work at Princeton University at 21. What cultivated your early interest in math and science, and what helped you excel in research and academics at such a young age?

It came naturally to me, so I can’t claim too much credit. I was always very interested in big things, abstractions and puzzles. I also received a lot of encouragement in school and grew up during the Cold War, when there was a national focus on STEM education. Scientists were the vanguard of protecting our nation against a big threat.

The memory of World War II and the atom bomb was very fresh in the minds of the adults around me. While I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of those things, we did have air raid drills and big scares about nuclear war. Meanwhile, the space race was taking place. Science was in the air, and it was very exciting. My parents also encouraged me every step of the way.

Over the course of your career, you’ve pioneered multiple concepts in physics. Can you walk us through your experiences exploring some of the universe’s greatest mysteries?

Asymptotic freedom, which I discovered with David J. Gross in the 1970s, is best understood in the context of what it accomplished for physics: It was the key to getting to the fundamental theory of what’s called the strong force, which is the force responsible for holding together atomic nuclei.

Using very sophisticated instruments and image processing, scientists were able to take a look inside protons and found that protons had an internal structure with smaller particles inside. These particles don’t exist as independent objects because they are bound into systems like protons. Inside the protons, they interact very, very little. This is called asymptotic freedom: When they get very close together, they interact very weakly. Before our work, a theory like this was thought to be impossible.

We proposed a fundamental theory of the strong interactions that is now known as quantum chromodynamics. This basic discovery of that strange behavior (asymptotic freedom) and of the theory of the strong interaction was a very major milestone in fundamental physics and is a central part of what’s now called the standard model, which has been extremely successful and to this day survives unscathed after several decades of rigorous testing.

Scientists hold the standard model to very high standards because it’s kind of God’s last word on how the world works. These are the fundamental equations that are the basis for astrophysics, chemistry, biology and all forms of engineering. When you hold the theory to that high standard, you find there’s an annoying flaw in the equations. A particular interaction doesn’t match what’s expected, which creates a puzzle. The theoretical community widely accepts that you should add some extra symmetry to the theory. That leads to our idea that there should be a new kind of particle, which in 1978 I called the axion, after a laundry detergent, because it cleans up a problem. And I thought axion sounded like it should be a particle.

A surprise that occurred a few years later is that the particle matched the profile of what astronomers call dark matter, which has a density of about six times as much as ordinary matter. It is a striking coincidence, and at present there are difficult but hopeful experiments involving physicists around the world trying to verify that dark matter is made out of axions.

Congratulations on winning the 2022 Templeton Prize, which honors those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. What does this recognition mean to you in your work?

It means a lot to me because, while I’ve continued to work on fundamental issues in physics and applications of physics, I have also come back to the questions that in many ways motivated me at the beginning. We didn’t discuss this, but there’s another thing that fed into my scientific career: When I was a teenager, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I took it very seriously and had the idea that the universe had a purpose. But then as I learned more about science and more about the dogmas of the church, I found that they were very difficult to reconcile.

For many years, I put the questions of meaning and purpose aside. In recent years, as my understanding of the physical world was maturing, I felt the calling to come back to some of those questions. I started exploring that in my writings. I was really moved and touched that the Templeton Foundation recognized that these efforts are worthwhile and worth supporting. As I think about the Templeton Prize, its kind of an analog of the Science Talent Search, which made me feel like I was in the big leagues of science. Now, with this award I feel like I am in the big leagues of wisdom.

Beyond your many discoveries and scientific accomplishments, you’ve also led a varied career as a writer, including authoring several books and a column for the Wall Street Journal. How would you describe your writing process?

My process has evolved over the years. I owe a lot to my high school teachers who used to have us write essays very regularly. In fact, thinking back on it, writing in high school wasn’t so different from writing my columns.

My wife, Betsy Devine, was very influential in getting me to write for the public. We wrote together. Our first book was Longing for the Harmonies.

What advice do you have for young people today who may be interested in pursuing research and tackling big problems?

Cast a wide net and find what you love. Don’t just fall into something and stick with it because that’s what your thesis adviser was doing, or that’s what appealed to you when you were a 6-year-old. Give the world a chance to speak to you and pay attention to what it is telling you. Weigh what looks promising against the probability of reaching an answer as well as the importance of the problem. That kind of judgment improves with experience.

What books are you reading now, and what books inspired you when you were young?

The most recent significant book I read was A Brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketty. When I was a child, one book that had tremendous influence on me was The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.

There are many challenges facing the world today. What’s keeping you up at night?

What literally kept me up at night recently was thinking about the dangers of nuclear warfare. The more you study the dynamics of how nuclear wars might start small and grow, and what would happen if there were a significant nuclear exchange, well, it’s just appalling and terrifying.

Also, climate change is creeping up on us. The problem is it moves slowly and has enormous inertia. There are key technologies that can help and are becoming more economical. But the politics of making the transition is tricky because there are people who have enormous wealth in the form of fossil fuels, which could be significantly devalued if we transition to clean energy. So there’s tremendous resistance to doing the right thing and that’s a big problem too.