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He is good-natured, funny and thought to be among the smartest men in physics: Frank A. Wilczek, 58, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was one of three winners of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. The award came for work Dr. Wilczek had done in his 20s, with David Gross of Princeton, on quantum chromodynamics, a theoretical advance that is part of the foundation of modern physics. Here is an edited version of two conversations with Dr. Wilczek, in October and this month.
Q. IN THIS TIME WHEN EVERYONE THINKS THEIR CHILD IS A GENIUS, WERE YOU, WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP, A REAL BABY EINSTEIN?
A. My parents didn’t think in those terms. They’re the children of immigrants from Poland and Italy and rather modest people. I grew up in Queens and went to public schools.
As a child, I liked puzzles, figuring out how abstract things might fit together. The big thing in my childhood was that every week my parents took me to a toy store, and I was allowed to pick something out. Did I want a model B-57 or a toy car? I had to make choices and really think about what my priorities were. It molded my brain to be what it is. I still think that way
Q. SO WHEN DID THE WILCZEKS REALIZE THEY HAD A PRODIGY IN THE HOUSE?
A. I took an I.Q. test in elementary school, and the teachers said, “Hmm, maybe you want to take him out of public school.” That really changed my relationship with my parents. All of a sudden, instead of being a kid they would simply boss around, they had this ... phenomenon. So really, they offered advice, gingerly. It was, “You’re the boss.” But I went to regular schools, Martin Van Buren High. I was always a couple of years ahead. I was just a little over 15 when I went off to the University of Chicago.
Q. THE DISCOVERY THAT YOU WON THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR YOU DID THAT AT THE AGE OF 21, RIGHT?
A. It was my doctoral thesis. In the early 1970s, I was doing graduate work in mathematics at Princeton, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a mathematician. Luckily, their math building is connected to the physics building. And I somehow drifted over there and met David Gross.
There were a lot of really interesting things happening in physics at that time. Once I started in that direction, there was no looking back. I discovered I was really good at theoretical physics and that there were all sorts of things I could do. One idea came after another.
Q. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE THESIS TO A PHYSICS NOVICE?
A. One of the big questions at that time was what is the strong force, one of the four basic forces, the most powerful force of nature, that among other things holds atomic nuclei together? There were lots of known facts about the strong force, but no real theory. Freeman Dyson had said that it would be 100 years before it was understood.
But David and I broke through to make a proposal for the fundamental equations that govern the strong force. We also proposed experiments to check the equations, which later proved out. The key was a property of quarks called “asymptotic freedom.” It’s unique among the forces of nature in that it turns off as the particles get close to one another. Conversely, the strength of the force grows with distance. That was seen experimentally, but proved very difficult to reconcile with quantum mechanics and relativity.
Well, David and I discovered that it could be reconciled. But only in a unique and mathematically intricate, highly symmetric theory whose specific beautiful equations we could write down. That theory is now called quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. It would result in new knowledge about the particles that make up the universe, of how matter gets mass. It helped us understand more about the early universe, and it suggested new ideas about the unity of forces in nature.
Q. YOU DID ALL THIS IN LESS THAN A YEAR. WHAT DID YOU THINK ONCE YOU HAD FINISHED IT?
A. That it was beautiful. Philosophers from the time of Aristotle on had said that fundamental science was more like everyday experience, where you had rules of thumb, which couldn’t be precise because you’d run into paradoxes and contradictions. So with QCD, it was, “Wow, nature obeys mathematical law.”
Q. THE WORK YOU DID ON QCD, THAT ENERGY IS THE SOURCE OF MASS, VERIFIED SOME OF EINSTEIN’S MOST BASIC IDEAS. DID THAT FEEL GOOD TO VERIFY THE MASTER?
A. That was a very wonderful and unanticipated consequence of that work. He proposed this possibility of converting mass into energy and vice versa. That’s what we did theoretically: we showed that most of the mass of ordinary matters comes from the energy of quarks and gluons moving around. So we confirmed, very much extended and fulfilled his ideas.
As you can imagine, Einstein was one of my big heroes when I was growing up. I think he’d like my work. I hope so.
Q. NOW THAT THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER at CERN is cranking up for more tries, will you be working there?
A. No, I’d just get in the way. But I’ve proposed some fundamental equations, and I hope they will be tested and verified at the L.H.C. I haven’t gotten involved in the details.
However, QCD will get an enormous workout at L.H.C. because most of what happens there is governed by QCD. It’s the theory of the strong interaction, which happens often in the collisions they’ll be producing.
Q. WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING ON SINCE YOUR NOBEL?
A. I’ve been thinking about these particles called axions and how they influence cosmology. I’m trying to be more serious about putting together what I’ve thought about earlier the idea of supersymmetry and axions, what happens if you combine them.
I’ve also been working on some exotic electronics. I have taken ideas developed in high-energy physics, about unusual properties particles might have, and tried to find some examples that emerge in materials at low temperatures, where quantum mechanics really comes into its own. There are some ideas in this for possibly helping to make a future quantum computer.
Also, I’m writing a mystery novel I’m calling “The Attraction of Darkness.” The central thread of it is that there are four physicists, two men and two women, who collaborate and discover what dark matter is. For this, they ought to get the Nobel Prize. But the rules are that at most three people can share it. One of the four dies, supposedly a suicide, but then, maybe not. I’m hanging a lot of sex and music and philosophy on it.
Q. WHERE DID THE STORY IDEA COME FROM?
A. There are situations like that. There are many cases where some notable discovery has contested origins. There might be five or six people who might be candidates for a given award. That situation has all kinds of possibilities for a mystery.
I started thinking about this when I was in Stockholm picking up the Nobel Prize. The whole sweep of it: you have this heightened consciousness. I just started thinking about the process and how all the things that were happening seemed so much larger than life. My New Year’s resolution is to get the book done by my birthday in mid-May.
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