The Most Beautiful Equation: 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 is an American theoretical physicist, mathematician and a Nobel laureate. He is currently the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Wilczek, along with David Gross and H. David Politzer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Future of Life Institute. His new book is titled A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design.
Frank Wilczek: 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 17th century with [Isaac] Newton and in the 19th century with [James] Maxwell and very beautiful descriptions and, in case of gravity, made even more beautiful with [Albert] Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the early 20th 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 would be a very important result too because it would 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 one another, high energy, again they don’t interact very much at all.
But if you try to pull them apart a significant distance, which means, in this case, 10 to the minus 13 centimeters or more, or if they’re moving slowly then they have very, very powerful forces. In fact you can’t extract single quarks from matter. They always exist bound to one another inside protons and neutrons. So we needed a force which gets weaker at short distances and grows as the distance grows. That’s a very paradoxical and difficult thing to imagine and make consistent with the other laws of physics that we know. Now there were powerful mathematical techniques for investigating that kind of question that had been developed for other purposes called renormalization group. So we were able to bring those techniques to bear and address this question. And they were very difficult calculations. It wasn’t entirely clear that they were consistent, that you could actually do this kind of calculation in the kind of theory that was most beautiful, that we wanted to investigate. But we insisted on hoping that the most beautiful equations would be the right equations. And we found out that a very, very special class of theoretical constructions with tremendous amounts of symmetry could give you this behavior. So that was — I compare that to Archimedes saying that if you give me a lever and a place to stand, I can lift the world. Based on that kind of leverage given by the sort of basic principles and faith and symmetry and beauty plus this one fact about the forces getting weaker, we were led to quite a unique proposal for what the equations of the strong interaction should be.
And we could develop some consequences of those equations and then propose to experimenters that they go out and check whether these consequences are correct. Now it took several years afterwards before it became clear that those consequences we predicted were correct, but they are. And in subsequent years it’s become more and more clear the theory has been used for a wide variety of applications now with great success. The kind of thing that in the early days was called testing quantum chromodynamics or testing asymptotic freedom is now called calculating backgrounds. So it’s gone from being a glamorous exploration of new worlds to kind of taking care of the garbage. So I think you could look for more interesting things. But well although it sounds, in a way, it’s kind of a step down. If I look at it in the big picture, it’s glorious that you have a theory that was originally very speculative and just something that existed in our minds. And it’s gone now to being an absolutely accepted and basic part of our understanding of nature and a very beautiful one.
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. In this video interview, the MIT physicist details his work with David Gross and the pursuit of an equation to rival Newton's gravity and Maxwell's electromagnetism.
"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.
- Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
- The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
- Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.
- Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
- Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
- Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.
LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.
The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.
LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy
According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.
LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.
In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."
What Facebook’s policy risks
Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.
But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.
"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.
Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism
To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.
It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.
But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.