God, Dark Matter and Falling Cats: A Conversation with 2022 Templeton Prize Winner Frank Wilczek

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize–successful theoretical physicist and writer, has been introduced because the recipient of the 2022 Templeton Prize, which is valued at greater than $1.3 million. The annual award honors these “who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it,” in line with a press launch from the John Templeton Foundation. Previous recipients embrace scientists resembling Jane Goodall, Marcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees, in addition to spiritual or political leaders resembling Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu.

Wilczek’s Nobel-winning work traces again to the early Nineteen Seventies, when he and two colleagues devised a principle describing the conduct of basic particles referred to as quarks—a feat that proved essential for establishing the Standard Model of particle physics. He has additionally proposed the existence of a number of new particles and entities. Some, resembling “time crystals” and “anyons,” have since been found and seem promising for growing higher quantum computer systems. Another Wilczek prediction—the “axion”—stays unconfirmed however is a number one candidate for darkish matter, the invisible substance thought to comprise nearly all of mass within the universe. He can be a prolific writer, and in his latest books hyperlinks his work as a physicist with his contemplations on the inherent fantastic thing about actuality, arguing that our universe embodies probably the most mathematically elegant buildings.

Scientific American spoke with Wilczek concerning the interaction between science and spirituality, latest stories that the Standard Model could also be “broken” and his newest analysis 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 symbolize for you?

My exploratory, science-based efforts to deal with questions which can be usually considered philosophical or spiritual are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve began to consider what all of it means.

One form of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is feasible—during which nature “talks back” and generally surprises you and generally confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and ideas that had been initially scribbles on paper change into experimental proposals and generally profitable descriptions of the world.

You don’t now determine with any explicit spiritual custom, however in your 2021 e-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 imply by that?

The use of the phrase “God” in widespread tradition could be very free. People can imply solely various things by it. For me, the unifying thread is considering huge: enthusiastic about how the world works, what it’s, the way it got here to be and what all which means for what we should always do.

I selected to check this partly to fill the void that was left after I realized I might now not settle for the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant so much to me as a young person. Those dogmas embrace claims about how issues occur which can be notably troublesome to reconcile with science. But extra importantly, the world is an even bigger, older and extra alien place than the tribalistic account within the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about group that I do discover useful, however they can’t be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I believe I’ve now gathered sufficient knowledge and life expertise that I can revisit all this with actual perception.

Can you give me some particular examples of how the knowledge you’ve now however didn’t have earlier in your scientific profession has influenced your outlook?

“Complementarity” says that you may’t use a single image to reply all significant questions. You might have very completely different descriptions, even descriptions which can be mutually incomprehensible or superficially contradictory. This idea is completely crucial in understanding quantum mechanics, the place, as an example, you possibly can’t make predictions concerning the place and the momentum of an electron concurrently. When I first encountered Bohr’s concepts about taking complementarity past quantum mechanics, I used to be not impressed. I believed it was borderline bullshit. But I’ve come to understand that it’s a far more normal piece of knowledge that promotes tolerance and thoughts enlargement. There’s additionally the scientific angle that openness and honesty enable individuals to flourish. It enhances the effectiveness of scientists to have a form of loving relationship with what they’re doing as a result of the work will be irritating and entails investing in studying some moderately dry materials. And then there may be the lesson of magnificence: once you enable your self to make use of your creativeness, the world repays with fantastic presents.

You gained a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 to your work on understanding the sturdy drive, which binds subatomic particles inside the atomic nucleus. This work kinds a part of the spine of the Standard Model. But the Standard Model is in fact incomplete as a result of it doesn’t account for gravity or darkish matter or the “dark energy” that appears to be powering the accelerating enlargement of the universe. Many physicists, together with your self, consequently consider we’ll finally discover proof that permits us to craft a successor to or extension of the Standard Model. In April physicists on the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., introduced that that they had measured the mass of an elementary particle referred to as the W boson to be significantly heavier than predicted by the Standard Model. Is this an thrilling signal that the Standard Model’s reign is approaching its finish?

I’m skeptical. This is a powerful piece of labor, nevertheless it’s an try and do a high-precision measurement of the mass of an unstable particle that decays very quick in unique methods. And as a result of the W boson has a finite lifetime, in line with quantum mechanics, it has an uncertainty in mass. Just the truth that the measurement is so sophisticated raises an eyebrow. And then, much more critical, is that the end result is just not solely discrepant with theoretical calculations but additionally with earlier experimental measurements. If there have been a compelling theoretical speculation suggesting that there needs to be this discrepancy with the W boson mass however no different discrepancy with all the opposite checks, that may be unbelievable. But that’s not the case. So, to me, the jury continues to be out.

One of your most up-to-date successes was predicting the existence of a novel quantum state of matter that you just dubbed a “time crystal” as a result of its particles exhibit repetitive conduct—like a swinging pendulum—however with out consuming vitality. How did you come up with the thought?

Almost 10 years in the past I used to be getting ready to show a course on symmetry, and I believed, “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 aren’t constructed however come up spontaneously as a result of they wish to be clocks. Now, when you’ve got methods that spontaneously wish to transfer, this sounds dangerously like a perpetual-motion machine, and that had scared physicists away. But I’ve been given a number of injections of confidence over my profession, so I wasn’t afraid and jumped in the place angels worry to tread. I initially needed to name it “spontaneous breaking of time-translation symmetry,” however my spouse Betsy Devine stated, “What the heck?!” So they turned time crystals.

Time crystals have now been created in the lab and in a quantum computer. How may they be helpful?

The most promising software is to make new and higher clocks which can be extra moveable and strong. Making correct clocks is a vital frontier in physics; [they are] utilized in GPS, for instance. It’s additionally vital to make clocks which can be pleasant to quantum mechanics as a result of quantum computer systems will want suitable clocks.

You have a behavior of developing with catchy names. Back within the Nineteen Seventies, you proposed a hypothetical new particle that you just referred to as the “axion”—impressed by a laundry detergent—as a result of its existence would clear up a messy technical downside within the workings of particle physics. Since then, different physicists have recommended that axions, in the event that they exist, have simply the best properties to make up darkish matter. How is the seek for axions progressing?

Axions are tremendous thrilling. It was completely surprising to me firstly that the speculation was completely designed to elucidate the darkish matter, however that chance has been gaining floor. That’s partly as a result of searches for the opposite main darkish matter candidates, so-called WIMPs (weakly interacting huge particles), have turned up empty, so axions look higher by comparability. And in the previous few years, there have been some actually promising concepts for detecting darkish matter axions. I got here up with one with Stockholm University researchers Alex Millar and Matt Lawson that uses a “metamaterial”—a cloth that has been engineered to course of gentle specifically methods—as a form of “antenna” for axions. The ALPHA collaboration has examined prototypes, and I’m optimistic, bordering on assured, that inside 5 to 10 years, we may have definitive outcomes.

And “axion” is now within the Oxford English Dictionary. When you’re within the OED, you already know you’ve arrived.

You additionally coined the identify of one other new particle, the “anyon.” The Standard Model permits for 2 kinds of elementary particles: “fermions” (which embrace electrons) and “bosons” (resembling photons of sunshine). The anyon is a 3rd class of “quasiparticle” that emerges by way of the collective conduct of teams of electrons in sure quantum methods. You predicted this back in 1984, nevertheless it’s solely been confirmed lately. What’s the most recent information on anyons?

I believed it might take a couple of months to confirm that you may have anyons, nevertheless it took virtually 40 years. During that point, there have been actually hundreds of papers about anyons, however only a few had been experimental. People additionally realized that anyons could possibly be helpful as methods of storing data—and that this might doubtlessly be produced on an industrial scale—giving rise to the sphere of “topological quantum computing.” There have now been prototype experiments in China and critical funding by Microsoft. Last month Microsoft announced that they’ve made the kind of anyon we have to get the quantum-computing purposes off the bottom in a critical method. So all these hundreds of papers of principle are lastly making contact with sensible actuality and even expertise.

You clearly have a knack for developing with groundbreaking ideas in physics. Do you’ve another revolutionary concepts brewing?

Yes, however I don’t wish to jinx them by casually mentioning them right here! I’ll inform you one thing amusing I’m engaged on, although: there’s an summary mathematical thought referred to as “gauge symmetry” that underpins particle physics. It’s a robust device, nevertheless it’s a thriller as to why it’s there. An fascinating commentary is that gauge symmetry additionally arises within the description of the mechanics of our bodies which can be squishy and can propel themselves. Amazingly, gauge symmetry seems once you strive and work out how a cat that falls out of tree can handle to land on its ft or how divers keep away from stomach flops. I spotted this with [physicist] Al Shapere 30 years in the past, however in latest work I’ve been generalizing it in a number of instructions. It’s a variety of enjoyable—and it would transform profound.

And lastly, what are your long-term hopes for the way forward for society?

Looking at huge historical past reinforces cosmic optimism. I prefer to say that God is a “work in progress.” Day-to-day, you possibly can have backsliding—pandemics, wars—however should you have a look at the general tendencies, they’re terribly optimistic. Things might go fallacious, with nuclear warfare or ecological disaster, but when we’re cautious as a species, we will have a extremely wonderful future. I view it as a part of my mission within the the rest of my life to strive and level individuals towards futures which can be worthy of our alternatives and to not get derailed.


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