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I Want To Make The World A Better Place: Frank Wilczek

By Kourosh Ziabari

22 October, 2012

We have arrived at another station of exclusive interviews with the world's renowned scientists and Nobel Prize laureates. This time, we have talked to the 61-year-old American theoretical physicist and mathematician, Frank Wilczek.

Frank Anthony Wilczek was born on May 15, 1951 in Mineola , New York . He currently works as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Prof. David Gross and H. David Politzer for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.

Wilczek received his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1970, a Master of Arts in Mathematics at Princeton University , 1972, and a Ph.D. in physics at Princeton University in 1974. He has the experience of working for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California , Santa Barbara . He currently serves on the board for Society for Science & the Public. Society for Science & the Public is a Washington-based non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of science through educational and advocacy programs.

Prof. Wilczek has worked in different areas of physics, including Asymptotic Freedom, Quantum chromodynamics and Quantum Statistics. He has supervised tens of doctoral students and won numerous international scientific awards, including the 1986 J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics, Lorentz Medal in 2002, Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society in 2003 and Physics Commemorative Medal from Charles University in Prague .

He has written several books, of which the most important ones are "The Lightness of Being," "Longing for Harmonies" and "Fantastic Realities" in which he describes his scientific life and his journey to the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Frank Wilczek has been a science promoter and worked intensively to popularize scientific discourses for the ordinary public, especially the young students.

"If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems. And that's a big mistake," he says.

This exclusive interview with the world-renowned American physicist Frank Wilczek was published in Persian in Iran 's oldest scientific magazine, Daneshmand, and is appearing in English for the first time on CounterCurrents.

Kourosh Ziabari: Please explain a little about your childhood days. How did you spend your childhood? Have you ever had some kind of intuitive and innate inclination toward science and scientific experiments in your childhood days?

Frank Wilczek: I was born on Long Island , just outside the New York City limits. My family moved into New York City when I was 3 1/2 years old, and I attended public schools there. My childhood was basically free of dramatic external events. I was lucky to grow up in a stable, though far from wealthy family, and to have excellent teachers. I had a fascination with how things work and with mathematics and puzzles for as long as I can remember. As a child I loved to take apart and re-assemble gadgets and models.

Kourosh Ziabari: What made you interested in physics and mathematics at the first place? What did you find in physics which satisfied you and could not be found in, for example, brain science, which you've written in your autobiography that tried to obtain for a while?

Frank Wilczek: My natural inclinations were mathematical and also in a sense "philosophical", in that I aspired to tackle big questions. As I went to college I thought I might try to contribute to figuring out how minds work. In college I discovered that the state of that subject was not ripe for mathematical analysis at that time. I also discovered, after a little experience, that laboratory work was not for me. So I didn't pursue that subject professionally, though I've continued to be interested in it. I decided to educate myself broadly in what you might call applicable mathematics, putting off the question of what to apply it to. I went to Princeton as a graduate student in mathematics, but looked around for applications. I found out that great things were happening in fundamental physics that used some of the mathematics I knew and liked, so I jumped in. Once I got involved in theoretical physics I discovered I was quite good at it, and that one idea led to others, so I've been at it ever since.

Kourosh Ziabari: Where did the idea of symmetry and group theory come from? Would you please generally explain for me the essence of this theory? What does the group theory signify?

Frank Wilczek: Group theory is the appropriate mathematical tool for studying symmetry. Most people have some rough notion of what symmetry means: Balance, harmony, correspondence among different parts. In mathematics there is a very precise notion of symmetry. An object is said to have symmetry, or to be symmetric, if there are operations you can perform on it that might have changed it, but in fact don't. So for example a circle is highly symmetric in the mathematical sense (as well as the common sense) because you can rotate it around its center, and still have the same circle; no other geometric figure has that property.

We also can have symmetry of systems of equations or physical laws; we say that the system of equations or laws is symmetric if we can perform operations on them that might have changed what they say, but in fact do not. A big theme of modern physics is that Nature is described by fundamental equations that have tremendous amounts of symmetry. We've used that idea to guess new laws, with amazing success. 

Kourosh Ziabari: One of the events in your early scientific career which you described as "great" was helping the discovery of the basic theory of the strong force, QCD. Would you please explain more about this theory and its fundamentals?

Frank Wilczek: We know of four basic forces: gravity and electromagnetism, which have been known for centuries, and the strong and weak forces, which were discovered only in the 20th century. The action of the strong and weak forces in everyday conditions is not easy to see, but those forces -- especially the strong force -- dominate the behavior of matter within atomic nuclei, at high-energy accelerators, and in stars and the early universe. As we now understand it, the strong force is best understood in terms of particles called quarks and gluons. The quarks and gluons obey the equations of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which are very beautiful and reasonably easy to write down, though hard to solve precisely. Protons and neutrons are made from quarks and gluons. They are more familiar particles, but they do not obey simple, beautiful equations. Atomic nuclei are made from protons and neutrons, which are bound together by the strong force. The equations of QCD have a family resemblance to the equations of electrodynamics, but they are richer. (In QCD one has three kinds of charges, called colors, while in electromagnetism there is just electric charge.) I like to say that quantum electrodynamics (QCD) is like quantum electrodynamics (QED) on steroids.

Kourosh Ziabari: Before you, Abdus Salam, Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for their contribution to the unification of the weak electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles. Have you added anything new to their discovery? Would you please elaborate more on that?

Frank Wilczek: We got the theory of an entirely different force, so I wouldn't call it an addition to their discovery, but rather something entirely new. Our work does have important implications for the study of the other forces, however, since it turns out that all of them are described by mathematically similar equations. So the ideas we developed to describe how the strong forces works, also tell us things about how the other forces work, especially how they work at high energy. That's been important in cosmology. You have to know how all the forces work at high energy, if you're going to understand the early moments of the big bang, when the temperature of the universe was very high. 

Kourosh Ziabari: What's your ultimate goal of studying physics? Do you study physics for the sake of science or believe that science should have practical implications for the people and benefit the society in a way or another?

Frank Wilczek: I want to understand the world better and to make the world better. So I try to make better equations and also to make creative use of the equations we have. But although those are my ultimate goals, on a day-to-day basis I also value just having fun, which for me means solving interesting puzzles.

Kourosh Ziabari: Have you ever had, during your scientific career, the ambition of winning such a prestigious award as the Nobel Prize in mind? Overall, have you ever worked to win a prize?

Frank Wilczek: Yes, I've definitely had that ambition. But I've never worked to win a prize, directly -- I've just tried to do great work, hoping the prizes would come.

Kourosh Ziabari: What was your feeling when you were wearing the special attire of Nobel Prize laureates in the Stockholm City Hall, receiving your prize from the King of Sweden? I want to extract that unique, outstanding, pure feeling which you had when you were about to become a Nobel Prize laureate, having your name registered on the annals of the history as one of the most prominent physicists of the world. What did your spirit look like in that ceremony?

Frank Wilczek: I felt very wide-awake, happy, and somehow radiant. It's hard to describe in words -- like being drunk and having a coffee buzz at the same time.

All the pageantry, and the music, and shining before friends and family -- it was just magical. 

Kourosh Ziabari: In one of your essays, you had argued that our world is a multilayered, multicolored, cosmic superconductor. You have said that this hypothesis has testable implications. Would you please elaborate more on this argument? How is it possible to assume the world to be a cosmic superconductor?

Frank Wilczek: Imagine some fish who because very intelligent and started to do physics. They would get very complicated laws of motion, because the motion of bodies through water really is complicated! Eventually some genius fish would realize that you could get a more beautiful and ultimately simpler account of motion based on different basic laws of motion ( Newton 's laws) but taking into account that there's a medium -- water -- filling all space and altering how things move.

That's what's happened in modern physics. We've discovered that we can describe the world with beautiful, relatively simple equations if we assume that space is filled with a medium that alters the motion of particles. More specifically, we can get especially nice equations for particles with zero mass, but many particles, even the most basic ones, have non-zero mass. So we need some adjustment to reconcile the beautiful equations with the reality we observe. It turns out that a model for this is the equations that were developed for quite a different purpose, namely to describe superconductivity. According to those equations photons inside a superconductor behave as if they have mass, whereas outside the superconductor they have zero mass. If we lived inside a superconductor, we would think of photons as particles with non-zero mass.

Using our imaginations, like the genius fish, and inspired by the successful theory of superconductivity, we can try the idea that the whole world is a sort of superconductor -- not for electricity, but for other forces whose "photons" are observed to have non-zero mass. Carrying out this idea has led to specific equations that have supported many successful predictions, such as the masses of the W and Z bosons and other particles discovered at accelerators, and the details of who they interact and decay.

We can also extend this idea to get a unified theory of three of the four observed basic forces of nature -- the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces. Those forces appear very different, but again the difference can be blamed on a fairly simple medium that fills space and gives additional sorts of superconductivity. 

Kourosh Ziabari: How does physics contribute to our daily life? Do we study physics, memorize the formulas and calculate equations merely for the sake of memorization and calculation? I mean, is physics something which should be studied in isolation, or can be annexed to the society? What does physics bring to our life?

Frank Wilczek: Well I'm communicating with you using my computer, which is based on microelectronics, which could not have been developed without quantum mechanics. And what I tell the electrons in my computer will be transmitted to you by transmitting microwaves that bounce off satellites and get received by antennas, amplified by masers ... the existence of all that technology is based on intricate use of the equations of physics, including several aspects that first turned up in the twentieth century. I could describe similar examples from everyday life in medicine, energy, transportation, and so forth. In short, modern life would be impoverished without the contributions of physics.

This trend will only increase in the future. Faster, cheaper, and more powerful computers and means of communication; cheaper and cleaner sources of energy; cheaper and more effective medical diagnosis, treatment, and drugs -- all this and more will come from better understanding of physics, and cultivation of its applications.

Another quite different but equally important aspect is cultural. People really could enrich their imagination and appreciation of the world by learning some of the beautiful, surprising and mind-expanding ideas that modern physics has found are necessary to describe physical reality. Quantum theory, in particular, is wonderfully mind-expanding.

Kourosh Ziabari: You're a physicist and have a clear and unambiguous understanding of our world and what constitutes it. What is hidden in our universe which the scientists have so far failed to figure out? What will be the destiny of our earth? Should we await a new big bang and an overnight devastation of the whole earth?

Frank Wilczek: There are many open questions at the frontier of physics. We've understood a lot, and have boiled down the essence of most physical behavior to a few simple, beautiful equations. But there are still annoying little flaws. Our fundamental theories still have several distinct parts; we'd like to get a fully unified theory. As I mentioned before there are good ideas in that direction (unified theories). There are also problems with understanding why the basic laws of physics appear to look nearly the same if you run time backwards. Again, there are good ideas for how to improve things (axions). On the observational side, we have the puzzle of the "dark matter" and "dark energy" that astronomers seem to need. There seems to be lots of matter out there in the universe that influences ordinary matter through gravity, but otherwise interacts very weakly with light or other probes that astronomers use. We'd like to have a much richer understanding of what that stuff is, comparable to our understanding of ordinary matter. It's not usually thought of as physics, but for me it is a striking problem of physics to understand at least in broad outline how minds work, at a molecular level.

Kourosh Ziabari: In one of your interviews, you had said that "ideas about unification and supersymmetry and producing Higgs particles" that you had developed some 20, 30 years ago, would be finally going to be tested. "If they're correct that'll be a major advance in our understanding of the world." Would you please give details on this a little bit more elaborately? How will your understanding of the world change if the tests are run accurately?

Frank Wilczek: This will be testing the idea I discussed above, that we live inside a cosmic superconductor. Our equations, especially for the weak force, rely on that idea. They are very successful, but they don't give us a concrete idea of what the cosmic superconductor is made out of, in the way we know concretely that ordinary superconductivity comes about through electrons. None of the known particles has the right properties to make the cosmic superconductor. So we need something more. The simplest possibility is a new particle called the Higgs particle. It has not yet been observed, if it exists the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an accelerator near Geneva that has recently begun to operate, should detect it. My own contribution to this story is relatively small, but significant: I identified the main process that produces Higgs particles, which is the fusion of color gluons.

Kourosh Ziabari: It was believed for long that the particles are either bosons or fermions. In 80s, you proposed an alternative view and realized that there are other possibilities. What possibilities? Would you please elaborate on this for our readers?

Frank Wilczek: The new possibilities are called anyons . A proper explanation of what they are would require a long excursion into basic quantum theory, which I won't attempt here. I'll just make a couple of observations. When I first worked on anyons I thought I was just playing around, exploring strange theoretical possibilities that quantum mechanics could live with. But within a few months some of us realized that anyons should actually occur in Nature, within certain kinds of materials at low temperatures. And in recent years people have begun to think about exploiting them for technology; specifically, for building new, very powerful kinds of computers -- so-called quantum computers. A whole subject I like to call ``anyonics'', which generalizes ``electronics'', is coming into being.

Kourosh Ziabari: The discovery for which you won the Nobel Prize had taken place when you were only 21. So, from the beginning, you were a real scientist. Had you ever expected to win the Nobel Prize or any other prestigious recognition when you were working on your doctoral thesis project?

Frank Wilczek: I realized right away, when David Gross and I proposed what is now the theory of the strong interaction, that if our suggestion turned out to be correct, we'd probably eventually get a Nobel Prize for it. And that's what happened! I should add that the experiments which proved our theory decisively required higher-energy accelerators, so many years passed between our initial breakthrough and the confirmation and acceptance of our theory.

Kourosh Ziabari: You've climbed the most prominent peak a scientist can win; the Nobel Prize. Do you still have motive for working, studying and examining? Do you think of repeating what Marie Curie has done, i.e. winning two Nobel Prizes? What makes you remain clung to science and academic activities?

Frank Wilczek: Although getting the Nobel Prize was a wonderful thing, and something that I'd vaguely fantasized about since childhood and seriously hoped for since very young adulthood, it was not my only goal, and really it's not the kind of goal that can guide your work on a day-to-day basis. You need much more specific and concrete ideas about what to work on. My scientific style has always been to be on the lookout for opportunities either to improve our understanding of the world, or to use our deep understanding to suggest new behaviors and experiments. It's been a very rewarding adventure doing this, and it's become habitual for me, and I don't intend to stop any time soon.

As our earlier discussions touch on, I've done a lot of pretty good work since that earliest work which eventually led to the Nobel Prize, and if the experiments break right who knows, there might be more awards. But that will take care of itself (or not). The thing that I can really control and have fun with is to keep playing with new ideas.

Kourosh Ziabari: Imagine that this interview and you are its teacher. What will you tell the students, i.e. our readers, if I ask you to give them a life lesson, something that they will never forget, something which will remain in their mind forever?

Frank Wilczek: A tall order! Here's a try: The most special and precious gift human beings have is imagination. Use it! Specifically, imagine your possible futures -- five, ten, twenty years out. Explore those futures, and find some that make you excited and happy to think about. Then try to make one happen.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist




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