Nobel Prize Conversations
“My aspiration really was to be like my role models, like Einstein”
What is your aspiration in life? In this conversation, conducted in March 2021, Frank Wilczek tells us about his hope to make a mark on the world. He recently released a new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, where readers can follow him on “simple yet profound exploration of reality”. Here, Wilzcek discusses the book as well as his life as a scientist.
Interview with two of the 2004 Nobel Laureates in Physics, David J. Gross and Frank Wilczek, 9 December 2004. The interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.
The Laureates talk about their discovery and the experiments behind it, the importance of formulating the right questions (9.46), problems still to be solved (11:27), their thoughts about string theory (13:49), and about being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (23:03).
Participating in the 2004 edition of Nobel Minds: the Nobel Laureates in Physics, David J. Gross and Frank Wilczek, the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose, the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck and the Laureates in Economic Sciences, Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott. Program host is Nik Gowing.
Telephone interview with Professor Frank Wilczek after the announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, 5 October 2004. The interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.
– Hello, is this Frank Wilczek?
– Yes. Hello.
– Hello. My name is Joanna Rose. I call from Stockholm.
– Oh, hello.
– My congratulations to the Nobel Prize.
– Thank you very much.
– I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, which is the official website of the Nobel Foundation, and I would like to make a short interview with you, which we will put on the website. Have you ever visited it?
– I have. Not recently, I guess I felt maybe it would be a jinx, but maybe a year or so ago I looked at it.
– Now you will be there as a Nobel Prize winner.
– Yeah, that will be nice. Probably I’ll visit more frequently now.
– How does it feel now?
– Well, I haven’t really had a chance to absorb it. I’m very happy of course, and a real high point was I very quickly called my parents. It was really really gratifying because they’re second generation Americans. Came as refugees from Europe – their parents were refugees from Europe, and they struggled during their Depression and really worked hard to get an education, and to get me an education. It was a real milestone for our family.
– Where do they live?
– They live on Long Island, sort of the outskirts of New York City.
– Did you expect the message?
– Well, it certainly was not a shock. I mean, I’m well aware of the value of our work. And many people have mentioned the possibility … even if I didn’t think of it myself. But of course there are many worthy contenders, and in any particular year the odds are favorable. So, it’s both not surprising and surprising.
– When did you realize that the discovery was really worth a Nobel Prize?
– I thought so, I think probably around 1975 or -6. Before very many people realized it. Maybe before anyone else. David Gross, who I worked with wasn’t so sure that it was of that significance early on. But I thought so right away.
– So, how come you believed in it?
– Well because I believed … the fact that we had a theory that was mathematically precise, that couldn’t be changed and that was correct in explaining some crucial phenomena, meant that it was right and that it would open up … since it was right, it would only be a matter of time to really proving decisively for everyone that it was right, and then beyond that it turned out to be much more fruitful than I anticipated. It not only … really cracked the problem of the strong interaction – what makes protons and neutrons, and what holds atomic nuclei together – but the nature of the solution, which was to show that things become simple at high energies and short distances, really opened up the possibility of thinking about the early universe in a controlled scientific way. And also of analyzing high-energy experiments in a powerful, insightful way that would have seemed impossible before.
– But you were still very young when you made the discovery weren’t you?
– Yes, I was 21.
– But sure of the result.
– Well, sure of the result because I calculated it. The significance that … I mean, that took longer I guess. It took a couple of years before I really was convinced that it was the right thing, and then once I was convinced of that I realized that it was very very important. And it has only become more important over the years.
– But, this was even before you received your PhD.
– Yes. This was part of the process of searching around for something to do for a PhD.
– So, what advice would you give young students today?
– Think for yourself. And think about Nature.
– So, what are your plans for today?
– My immediate plan I think is to … after I talk to you … is to hang up the phone, ignore other phone calls and take a walk, take a long walk, and try to clear my head. And then I’ll have a plan.
– That’s great. Thank you so much for speaking to me.
– Alright. Thank you very much.
– Bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.