Many people think that Nobel Prize winners work straight toward their brilliant discoveries. In an interview we had with Anne Kox, editor of the Einstein Papers, Kox told us that Einstein made many mistakes along the way – including forgetting minuses.
Sure. I recognize that. When you’re doing adventurous work, most ideas won’t work. There was a famous French mathematician called Henri Poincaré. One of his students once asked him how he got all his ideas. “Having ideas is not the problem”, he replied, “but throwing out the ones that are not good.” I get several emails with speculations a day, and have lots of speculative ideas myself.
There are many problems that would be nice to solve, but are not ready for it. Einstein took most of the last half of his life looking for a unified field theory. We can now see that the ingredients were not in place. He didn’t know half the basic forces of nature. Now, it is much more feasible to work on a unification without having just to guess. Things seem to be coming together. We can now take some concrete steps. They are very predictive, you can actually test things, like they are doing at CERN.
You say that you anticipate a new golden age. What will that age be like?
We have a very impressive theory of fundamental physical interactions. The core employs four separate forces: strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational. They operate deep inside atoms. The next golden age will come when instead of describing them by separate equations, we will be able to describe them by master equations. We have some pretty good ideas what that might look like, but we don’t quite have all the details. New things are possible. If people will see those things, a new golden age will start.
When you start to unify, you can describe more things like the very early universe, you can penetrate back further into the big bang. You can also very probably address the problem that astronomers have put to us, namely that most matter in the universe is different from the matter we are made of. The only way it’s been seen through is matter, it is about 5 times heavier. It is called dark matter, but we don’t know what kind of matter that is.
Could it help philosophically?
It would tell you how the physical world works. We would know what the foundation is. Then the challenge would be to build on it. Once we know the laws of physics, it will not be the end, but the beginning of using them.
Coming from a Catholic background, you used to believe strongly in a Grand Design, but stopped adhering to a conventional form of religion reading Russell. Are you still looking for a Grand Design?
I am still looking for secret meanings, things that point beyond everyday life. I guess the main idea that I like is that mankind as it exists is a transitional form. Man is made for the mind. We are now in a transitional stage, moving from conventional existence towards a much more superior kind of existence. I don’t know exactly what that form of existence will look like. Maybe there will be hybrids between us and machines. There will be minds that are far-far superior to human minds.
Even today, you can see, I have enhancements, I have a watch, computers, etc. We are already living with enhancements. That will continue and accelerate, maybe dramatically. Genetic engineering will come to that. I am pretty confident that’ll happen unless there is a nuclear war. We are a transitional form towards minds that are much superior. To me, that seems a very inspiring prospect.
Which physicists have inspired you?
In the Netherlands, there is of course Gerard ‘t Hooft. As much as anyone, ‘t Hooft was able to do new things about the physical world just by doing equations. It is amazing that it is possible to do such things. He is a very interesting and clever guy, very lively. I know he also likes to design computer games. He may not be a people-person, he is other-worldly, he is interested in other things. But his work is certainly inspiring.
Nambu, Nobel Prize winner of 2008, has a remarkable story. He grew up in Japan, suffered during the war, but triumphed to make very important contributions in the USA. He is a very modest guy, but his work is astonishing. He seems to have made leaps that were years beyond what people could have imagined at the time. Usually, people do one step at the time. His step was a giant step of imagination. It was way beyond what other people were doing.
I personally was also much inspired by David Gross, with whom I worked. He is very forceful, very eloquent. He likes to lead activities, is the director of an institute, and also made important contributions to research. Steve Weinberg is a great scholar. He has written many books, and thinks very critically about concepts. I am closest in style to Weinberg. I don’t want to be a general, in charge of anything and telling people what to do. I try to be eloquent too, I write things, I try to relate to the public as well as doing hard core research. Each of these personalities different approaches, science at the highest level as extensions of their persons.
In Europe, women are underrepresented in science and technology studies. What about the USA?
Women are certainly underrepresented in mathematics, physics and chemistry, although they are much stronger in biology and astronomy. It used to be a lot worse, though. People who know much more about this than I have to tried to analyze and improve this. Science and technology subjects are very competitive. In subjects like these, you have to deal with problems and equations that are either right or wrong. You have to be tough, make mistakes and learn how you can get past them. Boys do those kinds of things when they are playing, while girls like to cooperate.
What also plays a role is that early in your career, you may have to make odd hours at laboratories. You also may have to move around a lot before you get into a secure job. There may not always be adequate daycare. Factors like these can conflict with life choices, unless there are mechanisms for making it possible. And there is also inertia. In life sciences, especially at the higher level, students tend to see only male professors. For female students, it is then very difficult to find role models to identify with.
How do you yourself inspire other people to go for a career in science and technology?
I try to convey to that this is a very exciting time in physics. Teenagers who choose for studying physics are going to learn a lot and take the knowledge to a new level. It will take another generation to address what we have found. I also try to convey that the people who do this, are having fun. It is a human enterprise.
As far as I am concerned, graduates in physics and the like don’t have to work at the university. It would have an enormous benefit if more people with a science background would teach at for example high schools. Right now, the research community is largely based at the university. There is no reason for that, high school teachers can and should be engaged in the research that is taking place at universities.
We also need resources that present science for people who are not scientists, so without equations. In order to do that, I have writtenThe Lightness of Being, meant for the general public. I also just read Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller. I think it is very good that such books are written.
In my field of highly theoretical physics, most of it is not very useful in economical way. The value of what we do is predominantly cultural. Therefore, we should make it accessible to much more people than only those who contribute to the field. If we keep it in a small circle, we are not doing justice to its full potential, for we can use our discoveries to expand the human mind.
Is it hard work?
For most people, you have to work pretty hard, you have to master what is done before, before you can do better. The language you use is that very uncommon language of mathematics. It takes time to learn that language, although I do not think that that language is more difficult than any other language.
What about your further ambitions?
Originally, I was interested in how brains work. I am still very interested in those things, and tempted to move in that direction. But there is too much going on in physics, I can’t escape. Since I was awarded the Nobel Prize, I am seen as a role model. I feel that responsibility.
Frank Wilczek is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT. You can read more about his work on his personal website.
Gasthoofdredacteur Alexander Ribbink vindt Wilczek ook voor ons innederland een zeer inspirerende man. “Ik waardeer de nadruk die Wilczek legt op overdracht en communicatie. Je hebt niets aan individuen die niet communiceren. Je moet jezelf blijven afvragen hoe je je passie kunt overdragen op anderen. Het hoogste is het individu dat communiceert.” Zijn commentaar bij het interview leest u hier.