Forget about quarks, read my wife's blog

Fantastic Realities

September 15, 2006

Matin Durrani finds the weird world of Frank Wilczek's heavy-duty physics theories significantly lightened by tales of Nobel serenades and physicists' rap

I have never met Frank Wilczek, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics two years ago, but I have interviewed him a couple of times over the phone. He seems a friendly, good-natured kind of guy, who is enthusiastic and keen for you to understand his research. He is also phenomenally clever, working as he does at the forefront of fundamental theoretical physics. All of these attributes shine through in this collection of Wilczek's essays, columns and book reviews; despite his best efforts, however, non-experts will struggle to keep up.

Wilczek made his name in the early 1970s when he was still a graduate student at Princeton University. Although he had done a degree in mathematics, he wanted to apply his mathematical knowledge to "real" problems and would wander over to the physics building at Princeton to hear people speak about the latest developments in the subject. It was here that he met David Gross, who became his PhD supervisor. The pair hit it off and together they did the work that was to win them the 2004 Nobel prize.

Many chapters in the book reflect Wilczek's career-long interest in the "strong" force, which binds tiny fundamental particles called quarks inside protons and neutrons. Along with the electromagnetic, gravitational and "weak" interactions, the strong force is one of nature's four fundamental forces. Together with Gross, Wilczek's breakthrough was to discover that this force gets stronger, rather than weaker, as quarks move further apart. The discovery, known as "asymptotic freedom", explains why quarks never exist in isolation.

Wilczek's work also paved the way for the development of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of the strong force. When QCD is combined with descriptions of the electromagnetic and weak forces plus Einstein's general relativity you end up with the prosaically titled standard model of particle physics. The model has proved incredibly successful but still has plenty of loose ends. In particular, it does not take into account quantum mechanics. But if you could put quantum mechanics into the mix - using superstring theory, for example - you would be well on the way to a "final theory", which is the place where, as Wilczek puts it, "any series of whys comes to a satisfying end".

The book not only tackles QCD, but delves into equally fantastic subjects, such as dark matter, fractional charge, antimatter and the Higgs boson. The problem is that many chapters repeat themselves, which is not surprising given they were written independently at different times. Explanations that you think you have just about understood in one place end up being repeated elsewhere, only differently and so more confusingly. Even the essay on QCD that Wilczek wrote for a general-interest magazine called The Sciences - with strict instructions to keep things easy - gets tough at the end.

What comes across strongly (no pun intended) is that Wilczek - now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - is a very deep thinker. This is reflected in his three essays on one of the central tenets of classical physics - Newton's second law, F=ma . Wilczek was inspired to write these articles after being told he had to teach a course at MIT on elementary mechanics to new students. Rather than just dig out the lecture notes and teach, as most of us might, he went back to basics and carried out a full critique of the equation, which he dubs the "soul of classical mechanics".

As Wilczek points out, the equation is such an integral part of physics that most people do not really question what each term in it means. Force, for example, does not appear in any of the basic equations of modern physics. And although we talk about mass, many of the building blocks of ordinary matter are almost or totally massless. Acceleration, too, has a certain "culture" attached to it, Wilczek argues. In other words, F=ma is not an ultimate truth, even though it is often taught like that. Whether any of this matters is beside the point, but it certainly makes you think.

Fortunately, the heavy-duty physics is leavened by extracts from a blog, written by Wilczek's wife, Betsy Devine, about what happened when he won the Nobel prize. This 75-page section begins right from the moment on October 5, 2004, when she took a call from "a lady with a beautiful Swedish accent" asking to speak to Wilczek, who was in the shower at the time. Dripping water all over the floor, he came to the phone to receive the news that he, Gross and another theorist - David Politzer - had become that year's physics Nobel laureates.

We are then treated to the inside story of what happens when you arrive in Stockholm for the Nobel-prize ceremony - a hugely lavish event with white-tie dress code, stretch limos to ferry you from your hotel, and an elaborate dinner whose menu is kept secret up to the day itself. In fact, there is a whole week of Nobel-related activities that include dinner at the royal palace, various parties and a bizarre event at Stockholm University where students force that year's Nobel laureates to get drunk and jump around like a frog.

Although some of the blog entries end up sounding like a dreadful round-robin Christmas card, there are some lovely moments too. In particular, we read about the morning when a group of young female singers enter Wilczek's bedroom at the Grand Hotel before breakfast to serenade him and his wife by candlelight, accompanied by coffee and saffron buns, as part of the traditional Swedish Festival of Light. Who said research couldn't be glamorous?

Other light relief is provided by book reviews from Nature and Science , some advice to new PhD students - do your groundwork before choosing what subject to take - and Wilczek's Nobel biography. There is also a selection of poems, although he can certainly wave goodbye to the Nobel Prize in Literature for the eye-wateringly bad Gluon Rap . (I was going to quote it, but I'll spare you the misery, apart from saying that he rhymes "materialise" with "nucleis".)

Overall, this is a mind-bending book that you will want to come back to and reread; you will certainly have to, if you want to understand it properly. The best approach is to dip in and out. Most readers will go straight to Devine's easy-to-read blog; indeed, Wilczek says you should. See, I told you he was a nice guy.

Matin Durrani is editor of the monthly magazine Physics World .

Fantastic Realities: 49 Mind Journeys and a Trip to Stockholm

Author - Frank Wilczek
Publisher - World Scientific
Pages - 522
Price - £44.00 and £16.00
ISBN - 981 256 649 X and 655 4

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