A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design: How Wilczek Got His Nobel
Frank Wilczek was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 thanks to his work researching the so-called strong force. Frank Wilczek’s book is A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design
Transcript – There are four fundamental forces of nature as we now understand it. There’s gravity and electromagnetism which are the classic forces which were known already in prehistory and known in some form to the ancient Greeks but which had mature theories in the case of gravity already in the seventeenth century with Newton and in the nineteenth century with Maxwell and very beautiful descriptions and in case of gravity made even more beautiful with Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the early twentieth century. But in the course of studying subatomic physics and what goes on at very, very short distances people found they needed two additional forces – gravity and electromagnetism aren’t enough. And the two additional forces are called the strong and weak forces. What I got the Nobel Prize for was figuring out the equations of the strong force. And equally important not just guessing the equations but showing how you can test them and see that they were right. This was something I did as a graduate student. I was of course working very closely with my thesis advisor, a very, very gifted and powerful physicist named David Gross. What – so how did we go about doing it?
Well there were some – the experimental situation regarding the strong interaction was very confused, desperately confused. There was no theory even remotely worthy of standing beside Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s or Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. There were just a lot of rules of thumb and a lot of confusing data. What we did was focus on one particular phenomenon and try to understand just that. Putting off all other aspects of this confusing situation. The phenomena we tried to understand seemed so paradoxical, so crazy that we thought if we could understand that we could understand anything basically. And also because it seemed so profound and fundamental. Actually David thought that we could prove that it couldn’t – that you couldn’t understand it within the standard framework of quantum mechanics and relativity. And that will be a very important result too because we tell physicists they had to go back to the drawing board. This aspect that we were trying to explain was the fact that quarks which were somewhat speculative but a pretty clear indication of reality at that time – when they get close together they hardly interact at all. Or when they’re moving at very high velocity relative to their high energy.
Does the universe embody beautiful ideas?
Artists as well as scientists throughout human history have pondered this “beautiful question.” With Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek as your guide, embark on a voyage of related discoveries, from Plato and Pythagoras up to the present. Wilczek’s groundbreaking work in quantum physics was inspired by his intuition to look for a deeper order of beauty in nature. In fact, every major advance in his career came from this intuition: to assume that the universe embodies beautiful forms, forms whose hallmarks are symmetry—harmony, balance, proportion—and economy. There are other meanings of “beauty,” but this is the deep logic of the universe—and it is no accident that it is also at the heart of what we find aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.
Wilczek is hardly alone among great scientists in charting his course using beauty as his compass. As he reveals in A Beautiful Question, this has been the heart of scientific pursuit from Pythagoras, the ancient Greek who was the first to argue that “all things are number,” to Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and into the deep waters of twentiethcentury physics. Though the ancients weren’t right about everything, their ardent belief in the music of the spheres has proved true down to the quantum level. Indeed, Wilczek explores just how intertwined our ideas about beauty and art are with our scientific understanding of the cosmos.
Wilczek brings us right to the edge of knowledge today, where the core insights of even the craziest quantum ideas apply principles we all understand. The equations for atoms and light are almost literally the same equations that govern musical instruments and sound; the subatomic particles that are responsible for most of our mass are determined by simple geometric symmetries. The universe itself, suggests Wilczek, seems to want to embody beautiful and elegant forms. Perhaps this force is the pure elegance of numbers, perhaps the work of a higher being, or somewhere between. Either way, we don’t depart from the infinite and infinitesimal after all; we’re profoundly connected to them, and we connect them. When we find that our sense of beauty is realized in the physical world, we are discovering something about the world, but also something about ourselves.
Gorgeously illustrated, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design is a mind-shifting book that braids the age-old quest for beauty and the age-old quest for truth into a thrilling synthesis. It is a dazzling and important work from one of our best thinkers, whose humor and infectious sense of wonder animate every page. Yes: The world is a work of art, and its deepest truths are ones we already feel, as if they were somehow written in our souls.