Frank Wilczek at Stockholm University. Photo: Niklas Björling
Frank Wilczek at Stockholm University.
Photo: Niklas Björling

His 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics made Frank Wilczek one of the most recognised researchers in the world, even outside of his field. Now he will spend a large fraction of his time as professor in theoretical physicist at Stockholm University at the Department of Physics and the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics. The position, made possible by a grant from the Swedish Research Council, makes it possible for him to spend a considerable part of his time at Stockholm University. He will continue, though, being the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT in the US as well as professor in residence at Arizona State University a few months every year, while also taking time to visit the new physics institute in Hangzhou, China which bears his name.

Grew up in a working-class family

Frank Wilczek’s story starts in Queens, New York, where he grew up in a working-class family with roots in Europe. They were children of the Great Depression from Long Island and had limited access to resources, but that didn’t stop them from working to educate themselves. Frank’s father was a self-taught engineer and passed his interest in technology and science on to his son.

The late 50s and early 60s were an ambivalent time for science, seeing both the destructive power of the atom bomb and the potential for ever-more sophisticated technologies, with space exploration capturing people´s imagination.
“As children, during the Cold War era, our interest in science and technology was absolutely encouraged, as a national priority.”

Pioneering work at just 21

Frank Wilczek excelled at the public school he attended and his top grades won him a scholarship to the University of Chicago. His studies included neuroscience and philosophy, but soon mathematics caught his attention and he decided to take a master’s degree in the subject at Princeton. Once there he changed his sights to physics and started working under David Gross. In just a few months, Frank, alongside David Gross, published a ground-breaking article that would earn him some of the world’s most prestigious scientific prizes including the Nobel Prize. He shared the prize with David Gross and David Politzer.

The “strong interaction,” or “strong nuclear force,” is one of the four fundamental forces in physics. (The others are gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak interaction.) An atom’s core is made of the elementary particles protons and neutrons. These are made up of quarks, and quarks are held together by gluons that glue them together using the “strong interaction.” Essentially, strong interaction is the superglue that makes protons and neutrons possible.

Nobelprize for theory of asymptotic freedom

The trio won the prize for the theory of asymptotic freedom. In laymen’s terms, it means that when the distance between two quarks gets very small, or their relative energy gets very large, their influence on one another becomes very small. Thus they can be studied as independent or “free” particles, similar to how electrons or photons are studied. Asymptotic freedom led to a very specific theory for the strong force, known as quantum chromodynamics, or QCD.
“The theory has proved quite useful,” Frank says modestly.

The ideas of the theory have been fruitful in many areas of physics. Today it is the foundation for designing and interpreting most experiments in high energy physics. It can estimate what happens at high energy levels like particle accelerators. It can explain the functioning of the early universe. Because of the similarities among the strong interaction, the weak interaction and electromagnetism, it even brings physicists a big step closer to constructing a theory that unites all three.

A magic Nobel Week in Stockholm

Frank Wilczek described Nobel Week in one word – magical – and very different from what he had imagined. He had an inkling that he might win the prize some day, of course, but was totally surprised when it happened.
“It was an experience that changed my life.”

This year Frank Wilczek will also be in town during the Nobel week in December and is looking forward to participate in some of the activities.  Aside from official events, he will also take part in a panel discussion at the university on the physics of this year’s prize.   

The prise opened many doors for him and he became famous outside of the ivory tower.
“I take the Nobel Prize seriously. It’s not only an opportunity, it’s also a responsibility,” he says.

He has taken the opportunity to write books on science aimed at the general public. The latest, A Beautiful Question, Finding Nature’s Deep Design, looks at the ways that physics and concepts of beauty intertwine throughout history. His next book, entitled Fundamentals, is about “what everyone needs to know about how the world works.” In it, he lays down ten fundamental principles and gives the scientific foundation for those principles. His purpose is to explain the fundamentals of science while also combatting certain anti-scientific sentiments.

Hooked on Stockholm

In 2008 Frank and his wife, Betsy Devine, came to Stockholm to devote a semester to research at the physics institute Nordita. The couple loved Stockholm and Frank started working together with a number of researchers at Nordita and the Department of physics. When the Swedish Research Council announced a new grant for Swedish universities to recruit top international researchers, both Frank and Stockholm University jumped on board. The funds were approved and Frank Wilczek is one of four professors that the Department of physics recruited.

Axions - what “dark matter” is made of?

There are three major areas of research that Frank Wilczek will focus on when he is in Stockholm. Anyons are a new kind of emergent particle, realized within suitable materials, that may soon support new kinds of devices, including quantum computers. He is thinking about new ways to create anyons, and new ways to use them. Axions, on the other hand, may well be what that “dark matter” is made of.

He is hoping to refine the theoretical understanding of axions and their role in cosmology, and to facilitate their experimental exploration. (Frank Wilczek named both anyons and axions, and pioneered these subjects, which have become significant branches of physics.)  He is also exploring the peculiarities that quantum theory introduces into the notion of time and history, and methods to make those aspects useful. Other important tasks will be to organise conferences and workshops and inviting international researchers. Additionally, he will work with larger research applications and participate in research seminars and lectures series on theoretical physics.

Attractive research environment - and city

Frank Wilczek likes the environment of the Department of physics and Stockholm in general.
“The Albanova building is extremely attractive, that’s a pleasure to inhabit.”
There are several groups of interest to him (e.g. cosmology, condensed matter) which have regular informal meetings, journal clubs, and seminar series. 
“Nearby is Nordita, where I’ve also got an office.  It has lots of high-level scientific activity.”

He also appreciates that the university is a green space in the city.
“Betsy and I love Stockholm! The water, the size, the cosmopolitan feel, the safety, the long sightlines across Saltsjö Bay and the great public spaces. I’ve never seen so many happy families in my life.”
The couple live in Östermalm within walking distance of his job. “I’ve got to get my 10,000 steps a day! And it’s so near the amusement park Gröna Lund that I’ve been able to go there several times.”

Finally, what will the implications be for science after the US presidential election?
“It’s too soon to tell.  There are certainly reasons to be concerned, though. The denial of climate change and associated wild accusations that scientists are engaged in systematic misrepresentations are disturbing in themselves, and also symptomatic of a more general, dangerous irrationality. Also, modern science is an international activity, and the free exchange of ideas and movement of students could suffer if severely nationalistic visa and immigration policies are enacted.  I hope the heated rhetoric of our recent presidential campaign gives way to cooler, wiser action after reflection.  

Frank Wilczek on Stockholm's "vibrant scientific environment" (short interview).