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The Universe is a Strange Place

03/07/2005 4:30 PM Kresge
Frank Wilczek, Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics, MIT

Description: Perhaps the universe is not so much strange as brimming with lovely paradox. The search for such beauty seems to lie at the heart of Frank Wilczek's work. Twentieth century physics, from Einstein through Wilczek's own Nobel Prize-winning efforts, involves demonstrating the existence of a topsy-turvy reality: for instance, that such sub-atomic particles as quarks and gluons, which have little or no mass, "orchestrate themselves into not just protons and neutrons but you and me," according to Wilczek. "How is it possible to construct heavy objects out of objects that weigh nothing?," he asks. Only by "creating mass out of pure energy." These particles are essentially "excitations in otherwise empty space." Says Wilczek: "That suggests something 'beautiful and poetic: the masses of particles are not like, or similar to or metaphorically suggested by they are the tones or frequencies of vibration patterns in dynamical voids." The theory of quarks and gluons and the strong interaction accounts quantitatively for "the mass of protons, neutrons and ultimately you and me and everything around us." But physics has not yet squared away all aspects of the universe. Wilzcek says that "in cosmology, we meet our match, and don't know what's going on." This is because scientists can't account for much of the mass in the cosmos. 70% of this mass is in "dark energy," which is pushing the universe apart. Wilczek hopes that explanations for the dark stuff will emerge through improving equations, unifying theories of different interactions and extending their symmetries. "Beautifying equations leads not to ugly consequences but beautiful surprises," he concludes.

About the Speaker(s): Frank Wilczek is known, among other things, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, the invention of axions, and the discovery and exploitation of new forms of quantum statistics (anyons). Wilczek was 21 years old and a graduate student at Princeton University when he and David Gross defined the properties of gluons, which hold atomic nuclei together. In October 2004 Wilczek shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Gross and H. David Politzer for this work. Wilczek is a co-recipient of the 2005 King Faisal International Prize for Science. Among other awards, Wilczek has received the 2003 High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society; the 2003 Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society; and the 2002 Lorentz Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wilczek has taught at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He contributes regularly to Physics Today and Nature.

Host(s): Office of the President, Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lecture Series

Tape #: 19691

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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