Frank Wilczek is a physics professor at MIT and a Nobel Laureate. He recently visited Yale to deliver two lectures: “The Origin of Mass and the Feebleness of Gravity” and “The Universe is a Strange Place,” and he took time out to speak to the Magazine about music, mastodons and the state of the cosmos.
YDNM: The teaser for your lecture, “The Universe is a Strange Place” describes the “building blocks of matter” as “Music of the Void.” If “Music of the Void” were a band, where would their CDs be sold?
(Laughing) Everywhere, everywhere!
YDNM: What genre of music would “Music of the Void” play?
It would probably sound like John Cage: wild events interrupted by long silences.
YDNM: That’s very poetic. Would you buy the CD?
You would have to buy it. It’s all around.
YDNM: Do you think “Music of the Void” would be a good band name?
Yes, I wish I had thought of that.
YDNM: Have you ever played in a band?
YDNM: Oh! What do you play?
Well, when I was in a band in high school, I played drums. But now I play piano. I also play the accordion quite a lot.
YDNM: The accordion?
YDNM: Did you always want to be a physicist? Did you consider other professions or was it always very clear that physics was what you wanted to do?
No, it was definitely not clear. I knew from a very early age that I was going to do something that involving mathematics. Actually, as an undergraduate I was fascinated by neurobiology, but when I started to study that at the University of Chicago, it became clear to me very rapidly that the field wasn’t ready yet for a math model. The action was really in a laboratory, but I didn’t have the talent or patience for lab work, so I wound up majoring in mathematics and even starting graduate school in mathematics. But mathematics was so interesting that I felt I had to drop everything. Fortunately, the physics building was right next door to the mathematics building, and when I wandered over the physics building, and it was clear that very exciting things were happening there.
YDNM: You have won many, many awards. If you could invent an award and win it, what would it be?
My awards have been for highly theoretical work, but I fantasize about creating an invention that would help people in their everyday life. I would like to win a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But I’m not nominating myself.
YDNM: Back to your research, you proved that energy gives rise to mass, and this happens as particles make a transition from something active and unstable to something more stable. Do you think the massless particles may have some adjustment issues?
Oh yes. They have a lot difficulty in determining how to settle down and resolve their instabilities.
YDNM: Do you ever find yourself anthropomorphizing particles?
Well, humans have a lot of excess baggage that’s really not relevant to how particles behave. But part of the art of physics is trying to think about how things behave in a way you can visualize and play with without going through the very laborious process of actually solving the equations.
YDNM: I’m just going to do a quick word association with you. When I say a word, you tell me the first word or phrase that enters your mind. Mass.
Hard to move.
I know what it means. Well, chew. I was trying to think of something more creative, but that’s just the definition.