The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces: Anticipating a New Golden Age

author: Frank Wilczek, MIT Center for Theoretical Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Aug. 25, 2011,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 12196

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Listening to Frank Wilczek describe his research, one might not recognize simple English words, for they assume unfamiliar meanings in the context of physics. The deceptive lexicon of particles, forces and equations includes “up,” “down,” “flavor,” “color,” “strange,” “everything,” and the compelling “beautiful.” Rigorous science is conveyed in poetry and metaphor.

The springboard for this presentation is the final chapter of Wilczek’s new book, The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. For a sense of history, he first touches on breakthroughs of the 20th century that gave rise to conceptual revolutions: 1910 – theory of relativity; 1925 – quantum mechanics; 1970 – standard model of normal matter. He then broaches current exploration in particle physics and the promise residing in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva.

Just as Wilczek finds “standard model” too modest a designation for what it represents in physics – redubbing it “core theory” – likewise he upgrades the archaic notion of “ether,” more precisely naming it “the grid” to connote the essential structural material of the universe. As to examining the oxymoronic “dynamic void,” Wilczek explains that “to see something, you must disturb it.”

LHC experiments seek to give substance to the calculations of unified field theory, the quest to combine harmoniously the four fundamental interactions – gravity, electromagnetism, weak force, strong force. The LHC is the logical successor, extending the capability of the human eye, to Leeuwenhoek’s 17th century optical microscope and Rosalind Franklin’s 1952 x-ray images of DNA. As “an ultrastroboscopic nanomicroscope,” it advances seeing to new extremes of scale and resolution (temporally and spatially).

Through a virtual recreation of Big Bang conditions in a tunnel of 27 kilometers circumference, investigators endeavor to understand the nature of innermost space…as Wilczek terms it, “the deep structure of reality.” He intends no paradox in saying that the LHC will take pictures of “what appears to our senses as nothingness.” He emphasizes that the LHC is grand not only in concrete size but also “in every aspect of engineering and concept,” touting its distributed computing facilities at 100 sites around the globe as “the Internet on steroids.”

As a theoretical scientist, Wilczek hopes highly energized, accelerated protons will collide to reveal new subatomic particles, bolster the unification of forces, and confirm his postulate of supersymmetry. As a curious human, he embraces this massive effort with profound wonder and gratitude. In closing, he offers that “If you’re willing to make the investment to expand your mind, it’s an exciting time to be a thinking being!”

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Reviews and comments:

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