Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist-theorist and author, has been named the winner of the 2022 Templeton Prize, which is worth more than $ 1.3 million. The annual award honors those “who use the power of science to study the deepest issues of the universe and the place and purpose of humanity in it,” according to a press release from the John Templeton Foundation. Previous recipients included scholars such as Jane Goodall, Marcela Glaser and Martin Reese, as well as religious and political leaders such as Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.
Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winner, 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 the Standard Model of Particle Physics. He also suggested the existence of several new particles and entities. Some of them, such as “time crystals” and “anions”, have since been discovered and look promising for the development of better quantum computers. Wilczek’s other prediction, Axion, remains unconfirmed, but is a leading candidate for dark matter, an invisible substance believed to make up most of the world’s mass. 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 mathematically elegant structures.
Scientific American talked to Wilczek about the interaction of science and spirituality, the latest reports that the standard model can be «broken”And his recent research related to the hunt 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 exploratory, science-based efforts to address issues that are often considered philosophical or religious resonate. I’m very grateful for that and I started thinking about what it all means.
One type of “spiritual” awakening for me was a sense of how dialogue with nature is possible, in which nature “denies” and sometimes surprises and sometimes confirms what you imagined. The vague hopes and concepts that were originally doodles on paper are becoming experimental propositions and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.
Now you don’t identify yourself with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Basics: Ten Keys to Realityyou wrote, “By studying how the world works, we study how God works, and so on learn what God is». What did you mean by that?
The use of the word “God” in general culture is very free. People can think of completely different things. For me, the unifying thread is broad thinking: thinking about how the world works, what it is like, how it came to be, and what it all means for what we should do.
I decided to study this in part to fill the void that remained when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that meant a lot to me as a teenager. These dogmas include claims about how things happen that are especially difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older, and more alien place than the tribal story in the Bible. There are some claims to ethics and attitudes towards the community that I find valuable, but they cannot be taken as statements “from above”. I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can review it all with real understanding.
Can you give me some specific examples of how the wisdom you possess now, but which was not before in your scientific career, has affected your worldview?
«Complementarity”Says you can’t use a single image to answer all the important questions. You may need very different descriptions, even descriptions that are mutually incomprehensible or outwardly contradictory. This concept is absolutely necessary for understanding quantum mechanics, where, for example, one cannot make predictions about the position and momentum of an electron at the same time. When I first came across Bohr’s ideas about taking complementarity beyond quantum mechanics, I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was borderline nonsense. But I realized it is a much more general wisdom that promotes tolerance and mind expansion. There is also the scientific belief that openness and honesty allow people to thrive. This increases the effectiveness of scholars to have a kind of love affair to what they do, because work can be frustrating and involves investing in the study of fairly dry material. And here’s another beauty lesson: if you allow yourself to use your imagination, the world pays off with wonderful gifts.
You won a share 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for your work on understanding the strong force that binds subatomic particles inside the atomic nucleus. This work forms the basis of the standard model. But the standard model is certainly incomplete because it does not take into account gravity, dark matter, or “dark energy,” which seems to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Therefore, many physicists, including you, believe that we will eventually find evidence that allows us to create a successor or extension of the standard model. In April, physicists from the National Fermi Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, announced that they had measured the mass of an elementary particle called the W-boson. much harder than expected according to the standard model. Is that an exciting sign of that The dominance of the standard model is coming to an end?
I’m skeptical. This is impressive work, but it is an attempt to make a high-precision measurement of the mass of an unstable particle that decomposes very quickly in exotic ways. And since the W-boson has a finite lifetime, according to quantum mechanics, it has uncertainty in mass. Just the fact that the measurement is so complex raises an eyebrow. And even more seriously, the result does not contradict not only the theoretical calculations, but also the previous experimental measurements. If there was a convincing theoretical hypothesis that suggests this discrepancy should be with the mass of the W-boson, but not a coincidence with all other tests, it would be fantastic. But this is not the case. So, in my opinion, the jury is not there yet.
One of your last successes was predictions of existence about the new quantum state of matter you named “crystal of time”Because its particles exhibit repetitive behavior – like a pendulum swinging – but without energy consumption. How did you come up with the idea?
Almost 10 years ago, I was preparing to teach a symmetry course and thought, “Let’s think about crystal symmetry not just in 3-D; let’s think about crystals periodic in time ”. In principle, time crystals are self-organizing clocks that are not built, but arise spontaneously because they want to be clocks. Now that you have systems that spontaneously want to move, it sounds dangerous like a perpetual motion machine, and it scared away physicists. But during my career I was given a few injections of confidence, so I wasn’t scared and jumped where the angels are afraid to step. Initially, I wanted to call it a “spontaneous symmetry violation of time transmission,” but my wife, Betsy Devine, said, “What the hell ?!” So they became the crystals of time.
The most promising is the creation of new and better watches, more portable and reliable. Making accurate watches is an important frontier in physics; [they are] used in GPS, for example. It is also important to make watches friendly to quantum mechanics, because quantum computers will need compatible watches.
You have a habit of coming up with catchy names. Back in the 1970s you suggested Fr. hypothetical new particle which you called “axion” – inspired by detergent – because its existence will eliminate the dirty technical problem in the work of particle physics. Since then, other physicists have suggested that axions, if they exist, have the necessary properties to create dark matter. How is the search for axions progressing?
Axions are very exciting. At first it was quite unexpected to me that the theory was perfectly designed to explain dark matter, but this possibility is gaining strength. This is partly because the search for other leading candidates for dark matter, the so-called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), has proved empty, so axons look better in comparison. And in the last few years there have been some really promising ideas for detecting axions of dark matter. I came up with one with Stockholm University researchers Alex Millar and Matt Lawson uses “metamaterial”-material that has been designed to treat light in a special way – as a kind of “antenna” for axions. The ALPHA collaboration tested the prototypes and I am optimistic, almost certain that in five to ten years we will get the final results.
And “axion” is now in Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re in an OED, you know you’ve arrived.
You also came up with the name of another new particle – “anion”. The standard model allows for two types of elementary particles: “fermions” (which include electrons) and “bosons” (such as photons). Anion is the third category of “quasiparticles”, which arises through the collective behavior of groups of electrons in certain quantum systems. You predicted this back in 1984but that’s just it was confirmed in recent 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. During that time there were literally thousands of articles about anions, but very few were experimental. People also realized that any substance could be useful as a way of storing information – and that it could potentially be obtained on an industrial scale – which gave rise to the field of “topological quantum computing”. Now there were prototypes of experiments in China and a major investment by Microsoft. Last month Microsoft announced that they have pretended to be either we need to seriously run quantum computing programs. Thus, all these thousands of theoretical works finally come into contact with practical reality and even technology.
You obviously have the ability to come up with groundbreaking concepts in physics. Do you have any more revolutionary ideas?
Yes, but I don’t want to fix them by accidentally mentioning them here! But I’ll tell you something funny that I’m working on: there’s an abstract mathematical idea called “calibration symmetry” that underlies particle physics. It’s a powerful tool, but it remains a mystery why it’s there. An interesting observation is that calibration symmetry also arises when describing the mechanics of bodies that are shaky and can move by themselves. Surprisingly, if you’re trying to figure out how a cat falling from a tree can land on its feet, or how divers avoid falls on their stomachs, there is a symmetry of caliber. I figured it out [physicist] Al Shaper 30 years ago, but lately I’ve been generalizing this in a few ways. It’s a lot of fun – and can be profound.
Finally, what are your long-term hopes for the future of society?
A look at the big story reinforces cosmic optimism. I like to say that God is a “work in progress.” Every day you may have a retreat – pandemics, wars – but if you look at the general trends, they are extremely positive. Everything may go wrong, with a nuclear war or an environmental disaster, but if we are careful as a species, we may have a truly glorious future. I see this as part of my mission for the rest of my life to try to steer people to a future that is worthy of our capabilities and not get off track.