Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and author, has been named the recipient of the 2022 Templeton Prize, which is valued at more than $ 1.3 million. The annual award pays tribute to those “who harness the power of science to explore the deepest issues of the universe and the place and purpose of humanity in it,” said the John Templeton Foundation in a press release. Previous recipients include scholars such as Jane Goodall, Marcelo Glaser and Martin Rees, as well as religious or political leaders such as Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.
Wilcek’s Nobel work dates back to the early 1970s, when he and two colleagues developed a theory describing the behavior of fundamental particles called quarks, a feat that proved crucial to establishing the Standard Model of Elementary Physics. particles. He also suggested the existence of many new particles and formations. Some, such as “time crystals” and “anions”, have since been discovered and look promising for developing better quantum computers. Another prediction by Wilczek – “Axion” – remains unconfirmed, but is a leading candidate for dark matter, the invisible substance that is thought to make up most of the mass in the universe. He is also a prolific author and in his latest books connects his work as a physicist with his reflections on the inherent beauty of reality, arguing that our universe embodies the most elegant mathematical structures.
Scientific American talks to Wilczek about the interaction between science and spirituality, recent reports that the Standard Model can be “broken” and his latest research, including hunting for hypothetical particles and the physics of falling cats.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Award. What does this award mean to you?
My research, science-based efforts to address issues that are often considered philosophical or religious are resonant. I am very grateful for that and I started thinking about what all this means.
A kind of “spiritual” awakening for me was to experience how a dialogue with nature is possible – in which nature “responds” and sometimes surprises you, and sometimes confirms what you imagine. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbled on paper turn into experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.
Now you do not identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your book for 2021 Basics: ten keys to realityyou wrote: “By studying how the world works, we study how God works in this way as well learning what God isWhat did you mean by that?
The use of the word “God” in general culture is very free. People may have very different things in mind with it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking broadly: thinking about how the world works, what it is like, how it came into being, and what it all means for what we have to do.
I chose to study this in part to fill the void that had remained when I realized that I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church, which meant a lot to me as a teenager. These dogmas include claims about how things happen that are particularly difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older, and more foreign place than the tribal story in the Bible. There are some statements about ethics and attitudes towards the community that I find valuable, but they cannot be taken as ‘high’ statements. I think I have already gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can review all this with real insight.
Can you give me some specific examples of how the wisdom you have now, but have not had before in your scientific career, has influenced your views?
“Complementarity” says you can’t use a single photo to answer all the meaningful questions. You may need many different descriptions, even descriptions that are incomprehensible or superficially contradictory. This concept is absolutely necessary for understanding quantum mechanics, where, for example, you cannot predict the position and momentum of an electron at the same time. When I first came across Bohr’s ideas for taking complementarity beyond quantum mechanics, I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was borderline nonsense. But I realized that this is a much more general wisdom that promotes tolerance and mind expansion. There is also the scientific view that openness and honesty allow people to thrive. It increases the efficiency of scientists to have something like a love affair with what they do, because the work can be frustrating and involves investing in the study of fairly dry material. And then comes the lesson of beauty: when you allow yourself to use your imagination, the world pays off with wonderful gifts.
You won a share of Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for your work on understanding the strong force that binds subatomic particles in the atomic nucleus. This work is part of the backbone of the Standard Model. But the Standard Model, of course, is incomplete because it does not take into account gravity or dark matter or the “dark energy” that seems to fuel the accelerating expansion of the universe. Many physicists, including you, therefore believe that we will eventually find evidence that allows us to create a successor or extension of the Standard Model. In April, physicists at the National Fermi Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, announced that they had measured the mass of an elementary particle called the W boson to be significantly heavier than expected according to the standard model. Is this an exciting sign that the management of the Standard Model is coming to an end?
I am skeptical. This is an impressive job, but it is an attempt to make a high-precision measurement of the mass of an unstable particle that decays very quickly in exotic ways. And since the W boson has finite life, according to quantum mechanics, it has uncertainty in mass. Just the fact that the measurement is so complicated raises eyebrows. And even more seriously, the result not only does not correspond to theoretical calculations, but also to previous experimental measurements. If there was a convincing theoretical hypothesis that suggested that there should be this discrepancy with the mass of the W boson, but no other discrepancy with all other tests, that would be fantastic. But this is not the case. So I think the jury is still out.
One of your last successes was prediction of existence to a new quantum state of matter, which you called the “crystal of time” because its particles exhibit repetitive behavior — like a swinging pendulum — but without expending energy. How did you come up with the idea?
Almost 10 years ago, I was preparing to teach a symmetry course and I thought, “Let’s think about crystal symmetry in more than just 3-D; let’s think about crystals that are periodic in time. ” In principle, time crystals are self-organized clocks, those that are not constructed but arise spontaneously because they want to be clocks. Now, if you have systems that spontaneously want to move, it sounds as dangerous as a perpetual motion machine, and that scared physicists. But I was given a few shots of confidence in my career, so I wasn’t scared and jumped where the angels are afraid to step. At first I wanted to call it “spontaneous disruption of the symmetry of the translation of time”, but my wife Betsy Devine said: “What the hell ?!” Thus they became crystals of time.
The most promising application is to make new and better watches that are more portable and robust. The creation of accurate clocks is an important frontier in physics; [they are] used in GPS, for example. It is also important to make watches that are friendly to quantum mechanics, because quantum computers will need compatible watches.
You have a habit of coming up with funny names. As early as the 1970s, you suggested a hypothetical new particle which you called “axion” – inspired by detergent – because its existence would clear up a confused technical problem in the work of particle physics. Since then, other physicists have suggested that axions, if they exist, have the exact properties to make up dark matter. How is the search for axions progressing?
Axions are super exciting. At first it was completely unexpected for me that the theory was perfectly designed to explain dark matter, but this possibility is gaining more and more power. This is partly because the search for other leading candidates for dark matter, the so-called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), has turned out to be empty, so the axions look better in comparison. And in the last few years, there have been some really promising ideas for discovering axions of dark matter. I came up with it with Stockholm University researchers Alex Millar and Matt Lawson uses “metamaterial”—A material that is designed to process light in certain ways – such as an “antenna” for axions. IN ALPHA cooperation has tested prototypes and I am an optimist bordering on the confidence that within five to 10 years we will have final results.
And “axion” is now in Oxford English Dictionary. When you are at OED, you know you have arrived.
You also came up with the name of another new particle, “anyon”. The standard model allows two types of elementary particles: “fermions” (which include electrons) and “bosons” (such as photons of light). Anion is a third category of “quasiparticles” that appear through the collective behavior of groups of electrons in certain quantum systems. You predicted this in 1984but that’s all has been confirmed in the last years. What is the latest news about anyons?
I thought it would take a few months to make sure you could have someone, but it took almost 40 years. There were literally thousands of articles on anions during this time, but very few were experimental. People also realized that anyone could be useful as a way to store information – and that this could potentially be produced on an industrial scale – giving rise to the field of “topological quantum computing”. Now there are prototype experiments in China and a major investment by Microsoft. Last month Microsoft announcements that they have make everyone look like we need to launch quantum computing applications in a serious way. So all these thousands of theoretical articles are finally coming into contact with practical reality and even technology.
Obviously you have the ability to come up with innovative concepts in physics. Do you have any other revolutionary ideas?
Yes, but I don’t want to irritate them by casually mentioning them here! However, I’m going to tell you something fun that I’m working on: there’s an abstract mathematical idea called “dimensional symmetry” that underlies particle physics. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s a mystery why it’s there. An interesting observation is that dimensional symmetry also occurs when describing the mechanics of bodies that are loose and can be driven. Surprisingly, symmetry of the meter appears when you try to understand how a cat that falls from a tree can land on its feet or how divers avoid the abdomen. I understood this with [physicist] Al Shaper 30 years ago, but in recent works I summarize it in several directions. It’s a lot of fun – and it can be profound.
Finally, what are your long-term hopes for the future of society?
Looking at the big story boosts cosmic optimism. I like to say that God is a “work in progress.” Every day you can have a retreat – pandemics, wars – but if you look at the general trends, they are extremely positive. Things can go wrong, with a nuclear war or an environmental disaster, but if we are careful as a species, we can have a truly glorious future. I consider it part of my mission for the rest of my life to try to steer people towards a future that is worthy of our capabilities and not to derail.