Q&A: Talking God, science and religion with theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek

Frank Wilczek has a special fondness for rainbows.

It’s not just the stunning rainbows stretching across the sky that draw the Nobel laureate’s attention. He is just as fascinated by the variety of colors that appear on soap bubbles, water splashes and prisms.

For the record:

4:48 p.m. May 19, 2022

A previous version of this article stated that Uppsala University is in Stockholm. It’s in Uppsala, Sweden.

“There are rainbows everywhere once you start paying attention,” he said recently from his home in Concord, Mass.

In Judaism, rainbows serve as a reminder of the covenant God made with Noah to never again destroy the earth. There is even a special prayer to recite when encountering them. For Wilczek, 71, rainbows are both aesthetically “pretty” and an invitation to engage in scientific reverie about what makes the phenomenon possible: how light is refracted, what atoms do, how Sir Isaac Newton discovered nature’s color .

“My everyday life has been greatly enriched by occasionally thinking about what’s going on under the hood,” he said.

As a theoretical physicist, Wilczek has been looking under the hood of our perceived reality for more than 50 years. His insights and ideas have led to several revolutionary scientific discoveries, as well as an almost theological perspective on the nature of the world and our role in it, which he shares in his countless articles, books, and lectures for a general audience.

“By studying how the world works, we study how God works and thereby learn what God is. In this sense, we can interpret the quest for knowledge as a form of worship and our discoveries as revelations,” he wrote in his recent book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

It’s this articulation of the connection between science and spirituality that led to Wilczek’s most recent high-profile award — the Templeton Prize — one of the world’s largest single annual awards, worth more than $1.3 million, which he received last week. The award, according to the Templeton Foundation, is given to those who “use the power of science to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humanity’s place and purpose within it.”

Past recipients include Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Over the past 50 years, Wilczek’s ideas and insights have touched almost every corner of physics. He received the 2004 Nobel Prize for his theoretical description of the strong nuclear force, which is now a cornerstone of the Standard Model, which posits that everything in the universe is made up of a few basic building blocks that interact with no more than four fundamental forces – the strong force that weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force.

In 1978 he predicted a new type of particle called the axion. Although axions have not yet been discovered, they are among the leading explanations for dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up most of the matter in the known universe, despite being billions of times lighter than the electron.

More recently, he introduced the idea of ​​time crystals – a phase of matter that can endure constant change without burning up energy – and anyons, particles that behave strangely when their position is swapped but only exist in two-dimensional space be able.

“In my opinion, these are really all Nobel Prize-winning inventions,” said his friend and colleague Antti Niemi, a professor of theoretical physics at Uppsala University in Sweden. “He’s one of the few, I would say, who could easily get a second Nobel Prize.”

In addition to groundbreaking discoveries, Wilczek’s work has also led him to some of the same conclusions shared by mystics of all religions: the myth of the separateness and fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

As he wrote in Fundamentals: “Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and brain – the physical platform of our ‘self’ – is counterintuitively constructed of the same material as ‘non-self’ and appears to continue to do so. “

Other spiritual insights from his decades of scientific study include the idea of ​​complementarity—that different ways of looking at the same thing can be informative and valid but at the same time difficult or impossible to sustain, and that science teaches us both humility and self-respect.

“We have tremendous resources within ourselves,” he told an online audience last year. “We’re small compared to the universe, but we’re big compared to what it takes to have dynamic patterns and process them in a timely manner. Walt Whitman was right when he said it contained multitudes.”

Wilczek’s friends and students describe him as a kind and generous scientist who never lost his childish wonder at the immense beauty of the world and how everything works.

“There’s a difference between curiosity and wonder,” says Jordan Cotler, a Harvard theoretical physics major who worked with Wilczek as a sophomore. “Curiosity is an intellectual perspective, but wonder suggests that there is something in your soul that compels you to learn more about the world. He embodies that in a real, authentic way.”

Here Wilczek tells us more about his thoughts on religion, God and how science has shaped his view of life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you consider yourself an atheist, agnostic? Do you have a definition that you’re comfortable with?

Not belonging to any particular recognized church is certainly one of them, but I feel more comfortable saying I’m a pantheist. I believe that the whole world is sacred and we should have an attitude of reverence towards it.

Are science and religion in conflict?

No, they do not contradict each other. There have been problems when religions make claims about how the world works or how things got the way they are that make science seem incredible. It is very difficult for me to resist the methods of science based on accumulation of evidence.

On the other hand, science itself leads to the deep principle of complementarity, which means that to answer different types of questions you may need different types of approaches that may be mutually incomprehensible or even superficially contradictory.

You wrote, “By studying how the world works, we study how God works, and thereby learn what God is.” So what do you think God is?

Let me start by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was a very devout Christian and probably devoted as much time to the study of Scripture and theology as to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often spoke about God – sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old man” – but his concept was quite different. When seriously asked what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view, and that’s a lot closer to me. I just want to add that I think God is not just the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So for me, God is under construction. My idea of ​​God is really based on what I’m learning about the nature of reality.

Does this god have a will?

No will as we would attribute to humans, although I’m not saying that’s logically impossible. I’d say it’s quite a stretch given what we know. The form of the physical laws seems to be very narrow and allows no exceptions.

The existence of man as he is is a very remote consequence of the fundamental laws. One thing that [the physicist] Richard Feynman said I really remember him here. He said, “The stage is too big for the players.” If you designed a universe around people and their causes, you could be much more economical with it.

Can God be known or is that the wrong question?

I think this is the wrong question. God can be constructed. And I hope that we do it in an opaque way. As I said before, to me God is the God of Spinoza and Einstein, complemented by the idea that we have a role in creating him.

As I prepared for our interview, I came across a statement from the Catholic Bishops of California that states that science cannot answer our deepest and most perplexing questions, such as “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “Why did I suffer this loss?” “Why does God allow this terrible disease?” They said these were religious questions. Do you agree?

Science does not answer these questions. On the other hand, if you are interested in these questions, ignore the science at your peril. There is much you can learn from science by expanding your imagination and understanding the context in which these questions are asked. So saying that science doesn’t have a complete answer is very different from saying, “Go away, scientist; We don’t want to hear from you, leave it to us.”

Knowing what you know about basic rules and the properties of matter, do you think this world is an illusion?

I wouldn’t say that reality is an illusion. We experience it, but our naïve models of reality that we encounter as children don’t do it justice.

One of my favorite quotes in your book is, “The world is big, but you are not small.” How has this truth affected your life?

Sometimes when I’m discouraged or something unpleasant has happened, I remind myself of that. The world is big, so my little worries don’t matter on a cosmic scale. But they are important to me and I should do something about it. But I shouldn’t let them get me down too much because the stakes on a cosmic level are overall low.

Have some humility, but also self-respect. That’s what the universe tells us.

https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2022-05-19/q-a-peeking-under-the-hood-of-reality-with-theoretical-physicist-frank-wilczek Q&A: Talking God, science and religion with theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek

Russell Falcon

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