Leaping into the Grand Unknown

James Leynse/Corbis
The Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist Frank Wilczek, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 2007


Frank Wilczek is one of the most brilliant practitioners of particle physics. Particle physics is the science that tries to understand the smallest building blocks of earth and sky, just as biol-ogy tries to understand living creatures. Particle physics is running about two hundred years behind biology. In the eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus started systematic biology by giving Latin names to species of plants and animals, Homo sapiens for humans and Pan troglodytes for chimpanzees. In the nineteenth century, Darwin created a unified theory for biology by explaining the origin of species. In the twentieth century, Ernest Rutherford laid the ground for particle physics by discovering that every atom has a nucleus that is vastly smaller than the atom itself, and that the nucleus is made of particles that are smaller still. In the twenty-first century, particle physicists are hoping for a new Darwin who will explain the origin of particles.

It is too soon to tell whether Wilczek will be the new Darwin. His book is not the new Origin of Species. It is more like Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a popular account of a voyage of exploration, describing the landscape and the newly discovered creatures that still have to be explained. Wilczek is a theoretician and not an experimenter. His strength lies in leaps of the imagination rather than in heavy hardware or heavy calculations. He shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the concept that he called “Asymptotic Freedom.”

He writes as he thinks, with a lightness of touch that can come only to one who is absolute master of his subject. He borrowed his title from Milan Kundera, the Czech writer whose novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes a gloomier view of lightness. For Wilczek, the lightness of being is not only bearable but exhilarating. He says:

There’s also a joke involved. A central theme of this book is that the ancient contrast between celestial light and earthy matter has been transcended. In modern physics, there’s only one thing, and it’s more like the traditional idea of light than the traditional idea of matter. Hence, The Lightness of Being.

Wilczek has undertaken a difficult task: to describe the central problems of particle physics to an audience ignorant of mathematics, using few equations and mostly colloquial language. His idiosyncratic jargon words, such as Core, Grid, and Jesuit Credo, are explained in an extensive glossary at the end of the book. The glossary is fun to read, full of jokes and surprises. The words Core, Grid, and Jesuit Credo are not to be found in other books about physics. They are jargon invented by Wilczek to express his personal view of the way nature works. Core is like the core curriculum which…

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