God, Dark Matter and Falling Cats: A Conversation With 2022 Templeton Prize Winner Frank Wilczek
Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist and author, has been announced as the recipient of the 2022 Templeton Prize, which is valued at more than $1.3 million. The annual award 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,” according to a press release from the John Templeton Foundation. Previous recipients include scientists such as Jane Goodall, Marcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees, as well as religious or political leaders such as Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu.
Wilczek’s Nobel-winning work traces back to the early 1970s, when he and two colleagues devised a theory describing the behavior of fundamental particles called quarks—a feat that proved crucial for establishing the Standard Model of particle physics. He has also proposed the existence of multiple new particles and entities. Some, such as “time crystals” and “anyons,” have since been discovered and appear promising for developing better quantum computers. Another Wilczek prediction—the “axion”—remains unconfirmed but is a leading candidate for dark matter, the invisible substance thought to comprise the majority of mass in the universe. He is also a prolific author, and in his recent books links his work as a physicist with his contemplations on the inherent beauty of reality, arguing that our universe embodies the most mathematically elegant structures.
Scientific American spoke with Wilczek about the interplay between science and spirituality, recent reports that the Standard Model may be “broken” and his latest research involving the hunt for hypothetical particles and the physics of falling cats.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Prize. What does this award represent for you?
My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.
One kind of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is possible—in which nature “talks back” and sometimes surprises you and sometimes confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbles on paper become experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.
You don’t now identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, you wrote, “In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” What did you mean by that?
The use of the word “God” in common culture is very loose. People can mean entirely different things by it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking big: thinking about how the world works, what it is, how it came to be and what all that means for what we should do.
I chose to study this partly to fill the void that was left when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant a lot to me as a teenager. Those 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 alien place than the tribalistic account in the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about community that I do find valuable, but they cannot be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can revisit all this with real insight.
Can you give me some specific examples of how the wisdom you have now but didn’t have earlier in your scientific career has influenced your outlook?
“Complementarity” says that you can’t use a single picture to answer all meaningful questions. You may need very different descriptions, even descriptions that are mutually incomprehensible or superficially contradictory. This concept is absolutely necessary in understanding quantum mechanics, where, for instance, you can’t make predictions about the position and the momentum of an electron simultaneously. When I first encountered Bohr’s ideas about taking complementarity beyond quantum mechanics, I was not impressed. I thought it was borderline bullshit. But I’ve come to realize that it is a much more general piece of wisdom that promotes tolerance and mind expansion. There’s also the scientific attitude that openness and honesty allow people to flourish. It enhances the effectiveness of scientists to have a sort of loving relationship with what they are doing because the work can be frustrating and involves investing in learning some rather dry material. And then there is the lesson of beauty: when you allow yourself to use your imagination, the world repays with wonderful gifts.
You won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for your work on understanding the strong force, which binds subatomic particles within the atomic nucleus. This work forms part of the backbone of the Standard Model. But the Standard Model is of course incomplete because it doesn’t account for gravity or dark matter or the “dark energy” that seems to be powering the accelerating expansion of the universe. Many physicists, including yourself, consequently believe we will eventually find evidence that allows us to craft a successor to or extension of the Standard Model. In April physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., announced that they had measured the mass of an elementary particle called the W boson to be significantly heavier than predicted by the Standard Model. Is this an exciting sign that the Standard Model’s reign is approaching its end?
I am skeptical. This is an impressive piece of work, but it’s an attempt to do a high-precision measurement of the mass of an unstable particle that decays very fast in exotic ways. And because the W boson has a finite lifetime, according to quantum mechanics, it has an uncertainty in mass. Just the fact that the measurement is so complicated raises an eyebrow. And then, even more serious, is that the result is not only discrepant with theoretical calculations but also with previous experimental measurements. If there were a compelling theoretical hypothesis suggesting that there should be this discrepancy with the W boson mass but no other discrepancy with all the other tests, that would be fantastic. But that’s not the case. So, to me, the jury is still out.
One of your most recent successes was predicting the existence of a novel quantum state of matter that you dubbed a “time crystal” because its particles exhibit repetitive behavior—like a swinging pendulum—but without consuming energy. How did you come up with the idea?
Almost 10 years ago I was preparing to teach a course on symmetry, 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.” Basically, time crystals are self-organized clocks, ones that are not constructed but arise spontaneously because they want to be clocks. Now, if you have systems that spontaneously want to move, this sounds dangerously like a perpetual-motion machine, and that had scared physicists away. But I have been given several injections of confidence over my career, so I wasn’t afraid and jumped in where angels fear to tread. I originally wanted to call it “spontaneous breaking of time-translation symmetry,” but my wife Betsy Devine said, “What the heck?!” So they became time crystals.
The most promising application is to make new and better clocks that are more portable and robust. Making accurate clocks is an important frontier in physics; [they are] used in GPS, for example. It’s also important to make clocks that are friendly to quantum mechanics because quantum computers will need compatible clocks.
You have a habit of coming up with catchy names. Back in the 1970s, you proposed a hypothetical new particle that you called the “axion”—inspired by a laundry detergent—because its existence would clean up a messy technical problem in the workings of particle physics. Since then, other physicists have suggested that axions, if they exist, have just the right properties to make up dark matter. How is the search for axions progressing?
Axions are super exciting. It was totally unexpected to me at the beginning that the theory was perfectly designed to explain the dark matter, but that possibility has been gaining ground. That’s partly because searches for the other leading dark matter candidates, so-called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), have turned up empty, so axions look better by comparison. And in the last few years, there have been some truly promising ideas for detecting dark matter axions. I came up with one with Stockholm University researchers Alex Millar and Matt Lawson that uses a “metamaterial”—a material that has been engineered to process light in particular ways—as a sort of “antenna” for axions. The ALPHA collaboration has tested prototypes, and I’m optimistic, bordering on confident, that within five to 10 years, we will have definitive results.
And “axion” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. When you’re in the OED, you know you’ve arrived.
You also coined the name of another new particle, the “anyon.” The Standard Model allows for two types of elementary particles: “fermions” (which include electrons) and “bosons” (such as photons of light). The anyon is a third category of “quasiparticle” that emerges through the collective behavior of groups of electrons in certain quantum systems. You predicted this back in 1984, but it’s only been confirmed in recent years. What’s the latest news on anyons?
I thought it would take a few months to verify that you could have anyons, but it took almost 40 years. During that time, there have been literally thousands of papers about anyons, but very few were experimental. People also realized that anyons could be useful as ways of storing information—and that this could potentially be produced on an industrial scale—giving rise to the field of “topological quantum computing.” There have now been prototype experiments in China and serious investment by Microsoft. Last month Microsoft announced that they have made the kind of anyon we need to get the quantum-computing applications off the ground in a serious way. So all these thousands of papers of theory are finally making contact with practical reality and even technology.
You clearly have a knack for coming up with groundbreaking concepts in physics. Do you have any other revolutionary ideas brewing?
Yes, but I don’t want to jinx them by casually mentioning them here! I’ll tell you something amusing I am working on, though: there’s an abstract mathematical idea called “gauge symmetry” that underpins particle physics. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s a mystery as to why it is there. An interesting observation is that gauge symmetry also arises in the description of the mechanics of bodies that are squishy and can propel themselves. Amazingly, gauge symmetry appears when you try and work out how a cat that falls out of tree can manage to land on its feet or how divers avoid belly flops. I realized this with [physicist] Al Shapere 30 years ago, but in recent work I have been generalizing it in several directions. It’s a lot of fun—and it might turn out to be profound.
And finally, what are your long-term hopes for the future of society?
Looking at big history reinforces cosmic optimism. I like to say that God is a “work in progress.” Day-to-day, you can have backsliding—pandemics, wars—but if you look at the overall trends, they are extraordinarily positive. Things could go wrong, with nuclear war or ecological catastrophe, but if we are careful as a species, we can have a really glorious future. I view it as part of my mission in the remainder of my life to try and point people toward futures that are worthy of our opportunities and not to get derailed.
Zeeya Merali is a freelance writer based in London and author of A Big Bang in a Little Room.
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