Q&A: Talking God, Science, and Religion with Theoretical Physicist Frank Wilczek

Frank Wilczek has a particular penchant for rainbows.

It’s not just the jaw-dropping rainbows that grab the Nobel laureate’s attention. He is also fascinated by the range of colors that appears on soap bubbles, water jets and prisms.

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

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

“My daily life has improved a lot by occasionally thinking about what’s going on under the hood,” he said.

As a theoretical physicist, Wilczek has peeked under the hood of our perceived reality for over 50 years. His insights and insights have led to several groundbreaking scientific discoveries, as well as an almost theological perspective on the nature of the world and our role in it that 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 thus learn what God is. In this spirit, we can interpret the search for knowledge as a form of worship and our discoveries as revelations,” he wrote in his most recent book, “Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.”

It was this articulation of the connection between science and spirituality that led to Wilczek’s latest prestigious award – the Templeton Prize – one of the largest annual individual prizes in the world, valued at over $1.3 million, he received last week. The prize is awarded to those who use “the power of science to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humanity’s place and purpose within it”, according to the Templeton Foundation.

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

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

In 1978 he predicted a new type of particle called an axion. Although they have yet to be detected, axions are among the main explanations for dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up most of the matter in the known universe, even though they are billions of times larger. lighter than the electron.

More recently, he introduced the idea of ​​time crystals – a phase of matter that can undergo constant change without burning energy – and anyons, particles that behave strangely when their positions are swapped but do not can only exist in two-dimensional space.

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

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

As he wrote in ‘Fundamentals’, “The detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain — the physical platform of our ‘self’ — are, against all intuition, constructed from the same matter than “non-self”, and appears to be continuous with it.

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 valuable, but difficult or impossible to maintain at the same time, and that science teaches us both humility and autonomy. -respect.

“In ourselves we have enormous resources,” he told an online audience last year. “We are small compared to the universe, but we are large compared to what it takes to have dynamic patterns and process them over time. Walt Whitman was right when he said it contains multitudes.

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

“There’s a distinction between curiosity and wonder,” said Jordan Cotler, who studies theoretical physics at Harvard and began working with Wilczek as an undergraduate. “Curiosity is an intellectual vision, but wonder suggests that there is something in your soul that compels you to know more about the world. It is something he embodies in a real and authentic way. .

Here, Wilczek tells us more about his thoughts on religion, on God, and how science has informed his outlook on life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

Not being affiliated with a particular recognized church is certainly one of them, but I’m more comfortable saying I’m a pantheist. I believe that the whole world is sacred and that we should adopt an attitude of reverence towards it.

Are science and religion opposed?

No, they are not in conflict with each other. There have been problems when religions make claims about how the world works or how things got to be as they are, which science has come to make seem unbelievable. For me, it is very difficult to resist the methods of science which are based on the accumulation of evidence.

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

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

Let me approach this by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views on what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was a very devout Christian and probably spent as much time studying scripture and theology as he did physics and mathematics.

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

That was Einstein’s view and it’s much closer to my mind. I would only add to that 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 concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Does God have a will?

Not a will as one would lend to human beings, although I’m not saying it’s logically impossible. I would say that’s really overstated, given what we know. The form of physical laws seems to be very strict and does not allow exceptions.

The existence of human beings, such as they are, is a consequence far removed from the fundamental laws. One thing that [the physicist] Richard Feynman said he really stuck in my mind here. He said, “The stage is too big for the players.” If you designed a universe around humans and their concerns, you could be much more economical about it.

Can God be detected, or is this the wrong question?

I think this is the wrong question. God can be built. And that’s what I hope we do in a murky way. As I said, God for me is the God of Spinoza and Einstein, complete with the idea that we play a role in his creation.

As I was preparing for our interview, I came across a statement from the Catholic Bishops of California that said science cannot answer our deepest and most confusing questions like, “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 are religious matters. Are you okay?

Science does not answer these questions. On the other hand, you ignore science at your peril if you are interested in these matters. You can learn a lot from science by expanding your imagination and realizing the context in which these questions are asked. So to say that science doesn’t have a complete answer is a very different thing from saying, “Go away, scientists; we don’t want to hear from you, leave it to us.

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

I would not say that reality is an illusion. We experience it, but our naïve models of reality, the ones we arrived at as children, don’t do it justice.

One of my favorite quotes in your book is this: “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 on a cosmic scale, my little misfortunes don’t matter. But they matter to me, and I should do something about them. But I shouldn’t let them put me down too much because the cosmic-scale stakes, on the whole, are low.

Have humility but also respect yourself. That’s what the universe tells us.

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