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The Charmed Life of Frank Wilczek

A novelist gets a physicist to explain his scientific breakthroughs.

Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek’s new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, is both a way of thinking about the abundance that characterizes…By Nell Freudenberger

Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek’s new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, is both a way of thinking about the abundance that characterizes our exterior and interior worlds, and a kind of alternative to traditional religion, a way of being “born again” through science. I was asked to review it for The New York Times1 because it’s explicitly a book for non-scientists, and in doing research for my novel, Lost and Wanted, I’d gotten into the habit of reading physics for laypeople. Those books, for me, are divided into two types: the kind that presume the intelligence of the reader and push her to grapple as seriously as possible with problems the authors tackle in their theoretical work, and the kind that use abstract and sometimes flowery language to hint at the mysteries of the universe. I usually prefer the first kind, but I can be seduced by the second; what I like about Wilczek’s Fundamentals is that it seems to occupy a middle ground, introducing ideas about the biggest and smallest things in nature with simple but precise language.

In interviewing physicists, I’m always interested in how they work, and also in what kind of personality is suited to this discipline. Wilczek spoke to me over Zoom from his home in Concord, Massachusetts, in a gray room with a steeply sloped ceiling. He was wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt with more than one pen in the pocket, and he was both quick to smile and to qualify a point during our conversation. When he was concentrating on explaining something, he would close his eyes for moments at a time behind his glasses. Our conversation reinforced an impression I took from his book: that he is a profoundly happy person, whose happiness is in large part derived from intellectual endeavors, among which physics is the primary but not the exclusive passion.


I love the quote from Pascal at the beginning of Fundamentals about his existential horror at his own tininess: “the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck.” Can you remember, either as a child or maybe even recently, looking up at the sky and being frightened by your own tininess?

I wasn’t frightened. As a child, I was brought up in Roman Catholicism, so that colored my view of the cosmos. I was certainly frightened about going to hell, but not about the size of the universe. That, I thought, was just a fact that was not particularly relevant to everyday life, and certainly didn’t feel it was oppressive. My attitude changed as I grew up and started to think more about the smallness of Earth and people on it. But that was a peculiar thing for Pascal to say, to be frightened by the size of the universe.

I wasn’t going to ask this, but since you said you grew up Catholic, was there a moment where you lapsed? Or are you still …

Yes, there definitely was. There was a crisis. There’s a ceremony in Catholicism called Confirmation. When you reach the age of reason, which I think was 12 or 13, you get the confirmation for a more informed commitment. We went on a retreat for a weekend. It was really intense, going through the doctrines and getting enthusiastic. I was very taken with that. I had always been serious about thinking about the issues raised in the catechism and trying to interpret it as truth. At the same time, I was learning about science and reading subversive people like Bertrand Russell. But that retreat brought things to a head. In the moment, I held to the faith. But right afterward, it was just like the dam burst. And when it burst, it just leveled. There was no …

No going back.

There was no going back, right. For me, at least, once you start to examine the doctrines as being not the word of God but the products of people who didn’t understand things very well, you start to see the worldview was, in many ways, so paltry. It was all about Middle Eastern real estate.

Our conversation reinforced an impression I took from Wilczek’s book: he’s a profoundly happy person.

It’s interesting you were wrestling with what they were trying to teach you. Probably most of the kids at the retreat were looking out the window, or thinking about the 12-year-old girl across the table. You were actually grappling with the ideas.

Exactly. But in retrospect, I have a lot of sympathy for figures like St. Augustine. He reconciled Greek philosophy and religious doctrines—to the benefit of both, I think.

It was definitely easier to be a generalist than it is today.

It was easier to reconcile. We’ll never understand things as well as the ancient Greeks did because our standards are different. Our standards are much more rigorous and harder to live up to. We just can’t achieve them on all fronts.

In Fundamentals, you write about how, when you took a trip to Bell Labs in high school, you heard a scientist say that “phonons are the quanta of vibration,” and that that phrase just kind of reverberated for you. You couldn’t stop thinking about it until you figured out what it meant. That was interesting to me, hearing language that you don’t exactly understand in that context, and then that leading you deeper into the subject.

It really did. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it made a hugely deep impression on me. It began with the concept that particles, phonons, were a description or consequence of things that you wouldn’t think of as particles but as vibrations. How do you get particles coming out of a deeper reality? You could think of materials. He was talking about materials as worlds in themselves that had their own emergent particles, particles that were not things that could exist in the absence of materials. And within that self-contained world, if you lived inside the material, this would be what you think of as the constituents of reality.

Other kids had comic books and you had the world of vibrating phonons.

I had comic books, too. But that really fired my imagination. It gave me enormous satisfaction to construct an interpretation of those worlds because I didn’t know what quanta were. I didn’t even know what vibrations were, except in a very common sensical way, and I certainly didn’t know what phonons were. But, to be able to put together a plausible interpretation, which hung together, gave me immense satisfaction. It made me feel really smart.

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For me, one of the great insights of Fundamentals was the way you explained that particles are not just smaller versions of the atoms that Democritus imagined floating in space. I’ve encountered the idea before, but you wrote, “Particles are avatars of fields.” How did you come up with that definition? It seems very beautiful to me.

Well, it’s just a straightforward description of how the equations work, as well as I can put it into English. People talk about “particle wave duality” and “particles vs. fields,” but the most profound way, the most natural way, is to talk about space-filling fields. Particles are epiphenomenon. They’re excitations within fields. They have an internal cohesion that allows them to hold together and propagate as identifiable units. But in a real sense, they are just places in fields where the energy concentrates. The fields are really, in a deep way, where the action is. They are things in which we formulate our descriptions of the world that works.

There is one thing, in particular, I didn’t understand in Fundamentals. You wrote that “anyons,” quasiparticles you named, “have a simple kind of memory.” You said that anyons are important because their behavior could be used as building blocks for quantum computers. I read an article you wrote in Quanta.2 The explanation seemed simple and lucid but I got tripped up by the idea of space as two dimensions plus time. As nonscientists, we’re usually asked to think in terms of three dimensions plus time.

You want to give it a try?

No, oh, no, me? I definitely don’t, no!

Do you want me to try to explain it?

Yes, please.

The first thing to say is there are two-dimensional worlds in physics. They’re the worlds, for instance, inside your computer. When you have chips, the electrons live in two-dimensional worlds. Their motion in the plane is free, but, in the other dimension, they’re constrained. In the rules of quantum mechanics, there’s an energy gap, which means they can’t escape into the third dimension. They really do live in two-dimensional worlds, and we can give a self-contained description of physics in their worlds.

So we have two spatial dimensions, but there’s still a time dimension. Things can still move. So to describe not only the positions of your particles, but also their development in time, you introduce a third dimension. And then, instead of a particle having a position in this extended description, it has a “world line.” As time evolves, at each time you have a position. Tracking these positions, we get the world line. When you have several particles, you have several world lines, and they can wrap around each other and get tangled up. That’s the spacetime aspect. We have these threads, or hairs, that exist in three dimensions, two plus one, and wrap around each other.

That was the closest thing I’ve had to this sudden feeling of: How did this happen to me?

Now, the hair braiding analogy, I understood.

OK, so, if we have three plus one dimensions, you can always untangle the hairs in an easy way that doesn’t involve tearing them through each other. You can just pass the strands over each other. In that way, you can unknot anything. Let’s use that fourth dimension to describe a temperature. We heat up one of the strands and it’s then in a different place in the extra dimension. So now it can pass through the strand that was obstructed before. With that extra dimension, you can unknot anything.

So, in three plus one, or four dimensions, there are no knots. They can all be untangled. But, in two plus one, or of course three, that’s not true. So if you’re describing a quantum mechanical system in two space dimensions and one time, then the world lines can get entangled and make knots.

And that ability to be unknotted is what gives the anyons their memory?

To be more precise, what can happen is that the entanglement of these worldlines gets imprinted on the quantum mechanical wave function that describes the system. The fundamental description is not in terms of particles in space—that’s the classical description—but the wave function of these things. It turns out this was the theoretical discovery: that in some cases the entangling of the world lines gets directly imprinted on the wave function. So, you can get information encoded about how the world lines were entangled. So, the particles, in that sense, have a memory, in that there’s a memory that stores how they were entangled. That’s the precise conceptual structure behind that statement that the particles have a simple kind of memory. They read out their past into their wave function.

And then the idea is that an encrypted kind of this memory can be used in quantum computers?

It’s a very capacious memory in some cases. But so far the only memory that’s been constructed is a very limited memory. With the kind of anyons that have been observed so far, the only thing that’s encoded is how many times they’ve wound around each other. So what’s been demonstrated is a primitive version. To make them useful is the work of the future.

OK, to say that I understand anyons would be lying, but I understand a little better than I did before.

It’s really important not to insist you understand everything before you understand anything. That’s very important to expand your mind. I do this constantly. I am learning, exploring things that I don’t understand fully at all.

What’s an example of something that you don’t understand?

Well, I’m trying to bring my little-bit-more-than-Scientific-American knowledge of machine learning to a professional level.

That seems like a timely pursuit.

Yes, right. I’ve read things but now I’m programming and doing the exercises and doing it interactively, looking online. Similarly, I’ve been learning juggling and I really enjoy a professional juggler named Taylor Glenn. She is very charismatic and enthusiastic, and she has a tremendous number of videos on different kinds of juggling at all levels. Anyway, this is somewhat of a diversion.

Diversions are good.

One thing Taylor Glenn said that really stuck in my mind, to paraphrase, is that people think juggling is about throwing and catching. Juggling is actually about dropping things and picking them up.

That’s very profound.

It is, it is.

THE PHYSICIST’S NEW CHALLENGE: Frank Wilczek says he’s always learning new things, most recently how to juggle, by watching Taylor Glenn’s instructional videos on YouTube.Taylor Tries / YouTube

I’m always telling my less math-oriented child about making mistakes. He can learn more sometimes from making a mistake in math.

Oh, that’s probably my most famous saying. You can find it quoted on the Internet: “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”

That’s a great one. I’ll tell him the next time we’re struggling with fractions on a number line. So, I’ve been reading about Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. As far as I know, she wasn’t religious. But I was thinking about this when we were talking about your Catholicism. She told her biographer she couldn’t sleep for two weeks after her famous experiment on non-conservation of parity, and she wondered why God had chosen her to reveal this secret.

Wow.

Yeah, I’m really interested in this moment of revelation in science and how different it is from a similar moment in art. When you first thought about “asymptotic freedom,” a quantum behavior you co-discovered, for which you won the Nobel Prize, or anyons, or anything else, I wonder if you had the feeling, Why me?

Not really. This is going to sound very immodest, but I had one success after another, academically. I had something of a crisis when I first went to Princeton and graduate school. But, other than that, everything has gone very smoothly for me. There’s certainly been dry periods, but I never was surprised by the fact that I could come up with things and did.

Maybe because you always had been able to do them.

Most of my work is highly theoretical, so I write equations and think conceptually in pictures and motions. And the experiments that deal with these things are in a completely different universe—if you think of that universe. That’s probably the closest to what you’re talking about. When I did the basic work on asymptotic freedom, it wasn’t an established fact about the world. No one had seen gluons yet, or checked any of the important predictions. But it was plausible enough that serious people were taking it seriously and talking about it a lot, so it was very exciting and encouraging. I visited Brookhaven Laboratory, the national laboratory where there’s an accelerator.

The Cosmotron or the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron?

It was the AGS at that time. This was the early ’70s. It was a big thing, not by modern standards of accelerators, but it was big. It was a modest aircraft hangar size, and there were machines and wires all over the place. I was up in a gallery looking at it. Suddenly it hit me that this is where they’re going to check our calculations. Which are just things that I wrote down! This is where they were going to be tested and what their consequences were. So that was probably the closest thing I’ve had to this sudden feeling of: How did this happen to me? How did I become the messenger?

It’s like if you were a novelist, and someone said, “I’ve created these people from your book in a lab, and now we’re going to put them in a room and see if they do what you said they’d do.” Terrifying.

Something like that, right.

I was brought up in Catholicism and frightened about going to hell. But not about the size of the universe.

You write that the equations of modern quantum mechanics have an uncanny resemblance to equations in music. Do you play an instrument?

Oh, yes, I’ve always played. When I was a child, I wanted to have a piano, but our apartment was too small. And we couldn’t afford one. I played the accordion. I got quite good at that. Later, when I was in high school, I played the drums. We had a little band for a little while. But then I went to college. As an adult, I took up the piano, and reached a certain level. It was too late by that time to get really good. But I noodle around a little bit, almost every day, and I’ve educated myself quite a bit in classical music. I have fantasies about taking up jazz someday. But that’s sufficiently low on the agenda. It’s the part you never get to.

The idea of complementarity is important to your work. You define it as the “concept that one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have very different or even contradictory properties.” I get the impression that it’s not only a way of thinking about physics for you. For example, it seems to make you more optimistic about climate change than the average climate scientist?

I’m optimistic in the sense that humanity has gone through a lot of bad times. There was the Black Death, there was the fall of Rome. I think humanity will come out on the other side. Maybe not with 100 percent probability, but maybe with 70 percent probability, we’ll escape the worst doomsday scenarios for climate change and nuclear war and other terrible things. The long-term future will be great, but there may be some very tough intermediate times. Climate change is tragic in the sense that we know what we should do. People can argue about the details, but we can buy ourselves an insurance policy at quite a reasonable cost that would save us from very bad outcomes.

Are you talking about insurance policies in the form of carbon capture technology, or something else?

I’m talking about more investment in sustainable energy sources. We have to investigate fusion. We have to do safe nuclear energy. I hate to say this, but we do have to look into geoengineering. We have to look into mitigation, remedy, coping strategies. But what makes me really worried is that the political will to do these things just doesn’t seem to be there. There’s a deep reason for that, which is there are very powerful people whose power and wealth derive from the perceived value of the mineral and geological resources they control. They’re going to fight and kick and scream and do their best to impede alternative energy sources.

Also ominous is huge philanthropy. People give in the right places but still make money the old way.

I’m convinced philanthropy is part of a sophisticated strategy by people like the Koch brothers. I don’t want to hear about their philanthropy. Even though they contribute generously to MIT, they’re some of the worst people on Earth.

The last thing I was going to ask about is your reading for pleasure. Is there anything you’ve read recently that you especially enjoyed?

Oh, yeah, I read a really good book: Lost and Wanted.

Really?

I really appreciate what you have on page 185. There were two passages that I especially liked, one on page …

I’m sorry, I just have to interrupt. Do you have a photographic memory? How do you remember something is on page 185?

Oh, because I marked it. There aren’t that many things that really strike me, and so I want to remember. One was on page 177, where you talked about how physicists come from strange families, from parents who don’t know any better. That really resonated with me because that described my family very well. And then, on page 185, you have this brilliant analogy between doing math and the joy of doing a sport, gymnastics, and the necessity to do warm-up exercises. You have to do things that are not necessarily interesting or rewarding in themselves, but you have to know that there’s a payoff coming. You have to invest in the math. It’s very important for people to know that there is a payoff.

Well, I really appreciate Fundamentals. I wish someone had given it to me when I was a junior in high school, when I said to my math teacher, “I want to quit.” I wish she’d said, “Just read this book about physics and you’ll see why you shouldn’t quit.”

That’s why I write these books, especially this latest one. I want to assure people that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You can envision and admire it. But you can do more if you invest more.


Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels Lost and Wanted, The Newlyweds, and The Dissident, and of the short story collection, Lucky Girls. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she lives in Brooklyn with her family.


References

1. Freudenberger, N. Electrons, photons, gluons, quarks: A Nobel-winning physicist explains it all. The New York Times (2021).

2. Wilczek, F. Inside the knotty world of “anyon” particles. Quanta (2017).


Lead photocollage: Tasnuva Elahi

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