The Universe is a Strange Place
published: Aug. 26, 2011, recorded: March 2005, views: 3137
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Perhaps the universe is not so much strange as brimming with lovely paradox. The search for such beauty seems to lie at the heart of Frank Wilczek’s work. Twentieth century physics, from Einstein through Wilczek’s own Nobel Prize-winning efforts, involves demonstrating the existence of a topsy-turvy reality: for instance, that such sub-atomic particles as quarks and gluons, which have little or no mass, “orchestrate themselves into not just protons and neutrons but you and me,” according to Wilczek. “How is it possible to construct heavy objects out of objects that weigh nothing?,” he asks. Only by “creating mass out of pure energy.” These particles are essentially “excitations in otherwise empty space.” Says Wilczek: “That suggests something …beautiful and poetic: the masses of particles are not like, or similar to or metaphorically suggested by—they are the tones or frequencies of vibration patterns in dynamical voids.” The theory of quarks and gluons and the strong interaction accounts quantitatively for “the mass of protons, neutrons and ultimately you and me and everything around us.” But physics has not yet squared away all aspects of the universe. Wilzcek says that “in cosmology, we meet our match, and don’t know what’s going on.” This is because scientists can’t account for much of the mass in the cosmos. 70% of this mass is in “dark energy,” which is pushing the universe apart. Wilczek hopes that explanations for the dark stuff will emerge through improving equations, unifying theories of different interactions and extending their symmetries. “Beautifying equations leads not to ugly consequences but beautiful surprises,” he concludes.
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