Frank Wilczek

Photo: Justin Knight Photography

Dr. Frank Wilczek is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the first permanent member of the National Science Foundation's Institute for Theoretical Physics and, later, the J.R. Oppenheimer Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. Since 2002, he has been an Adjunct Professor in the Centro de Estudios Científicos of Valdivia, Chile.

Professor Wilczek has been a Sloan Foundation Fellow (1975-77) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (1982-87). He has received UNESCO's Dirac Medal, the American Physical Society's Sakurai Prize, the Michelson Prize from Case Western University, and the Lorentz Medal of the Netherlands Academy for his contributions to the development of theoretical physics. In 2004 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, and in 2005 the King Faisal Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Trustee of the University of Chicago. He contributes regularly to Physics Today and to Nature, explaining topics at the frontiers of physics to wider scientific audiences. He received the Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society for these activities.

As a widely respected physicist, Frank Wilczek stays busy by researching and writing books, but also giving public lectures and communicating to nonscientific audiences. In doing so, he has made relating the frontiers of science to the general public an integral part of his career.

“It’s important as a responsibility, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity,” he believes, “It’s a gift to be able to contribute to the public culture because the things you find in these deep explorations are really beautiful and fascinating and strange.”

Wilczek has written two popular science books, The Lightness of Being and Longing for the Harmonies, that discuss themes of the physical universe for the lay public.He is in the process of writing another book titled A Beautiful Question, which seeks to explore the question: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?’

“The only downside,” Wilczek says of his science communication efforts, “is that it takes time and I have other priorities, but it’s something I view as a part of my job and also as a privilege …. I feel like I’m coming in contact with the kid I was before I became a sophisticated scientist and bringing back what I’ve learned in the meantime to those original questions is really fun.”

A spark of curiosity

At the time Wilczek was growing up in Queens, New York, during the Cold War, science and technology captivated America’s dreams for a better society. As a child, Wilczek thrived in an educational environment where everyone respected science and teachers helped to cultivate his natural inclination to ask big questions by gathering evidence and reasoning logically to solve problems.

One of his earliest memories is saving up his allowance for months to buy a telescope. By age 16, Wilczek took home fourth prize at the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious science competition for high school students, and gained confidence that he could one day hope to play in the big leagues.

But Wilczek’s memories of the Cold War did more than spark his scientific curiosity. They also shaped how he sees the public responsibilities of scientists today. He contends, “Science is very powerful. There are very specific things where science and technology need to be tamed or managed very carefully. I’m thinking of course, of all nuclear weapons, but also more generally of technological warfare … and then there’s this specter of climate change—that’s really scary …. It’s incumbent on scientists to use their prestige, their credibility, and their expertise to see that those challenges get met properly.”

Finding asymptotic freedom

Wilczek didn’t initially have a specific career path in mind. “I was a kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do except that he wanted to do something big and mathematical,” he recalls. While still a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton, he became interested in the exciting things that were going on in physics, and he began doing theoretical physics research with Professor David Gross, with whom he would later share the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Wilczek’s research explored the strong nuclear force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature. While the fundamental forces of gravity and electromagnetism have well established theories characterized by Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations, the strong and weak nuclear forces weren’t even discovered until the 20th century. The strong force is responsible for holding protons and neutrons together to form atomic nuclei of atoms. Wilczek analyzed experimental data on protons and deduced some interesting properties of quarks, the sub-constituents of protons. He found that the force between these quarks became weaker as they got closer to each other.  He and Gross called this feature “asymptotic freedom”.  Reconciling this feature with known constraints from general relativity and quantum mechanics, they proposed the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) as the unique solution. QCD is an important part of the Standard Model of particle physics, a widely accepted theory explaining how matter behaves under the four fundamental forces.

Wilczek has also dabbled in other research areas including the early universe and dark matter. He developed improvements to the equations of the Standard Model that resulted in a distinct new type of theoretical particle that solves some of the problems of the theory of QCD. But how do you come up with a name for a new theoretical particle? “I named this actually after a detergent, Axion detergent. I always thought it sounded like a particle and if I ever got a chance to name something that was even remotely appropriate, I would.” This particle is now known as the axion, and it is what Wilczek believes to be a strong candidate for dark matter.

A charmed life

“I’ve led a charmed life,” acknowledges Wilczek, perhaps recalling the aura of magic that first drew him to science. As a professor at MIT, he still enjoys exploring the universe’s big questions on topics ranging from particle physics to astrophysics to condensed matter physics. He feels privileged to be able to share his passion with the public through his writing.

Reflecting on his career, Wilczek affirms, “The greatest joy really has been to see ideas which started as nebulous dreams or visions of how things might fit together realized in nature.”

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