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Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek joins ASU

Theoretical physicist is second Nobel winner to join Arizona State in less than a week

May 09, 2016

Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist and mathematician who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, is joining Arizona State University as a professor in the physics department.

A photograph of ASU's Frank Wilczek

Wilczek will work on a variety of important issues in theoretical physics. He will also be organizing workshops to gather the best and brightest physicists worldwide at ASU to help propel the advancement of the discipline. He is the second Nobel Prize-winning professor to join ASU in the last week.

“At a minimum I will be giving lectures to advance students on frontier topics, basically what I’m working on,” he said. “It’s also quite possible I will try to involve students at earlier stages in some of the more practical work, where they don’t need as much theoretical background.”

Wilczek said he’s looking for a new adventure, and his move to Arizona State will be another step in the evolution of an existing relationship.

“(My wife) Betsy and I have visited ASU regularly for the past several years,” he said. “We’ve had many great experiences in the Tempe and Phoenix community already. We’ve been impressed with the visionary ambition and dynamism of the university in general, and with its encouragement of new scientific and cross-disciplinary initiatives in particular. I’m looking forward to exciting adventures in advancing the frontiers of science, sharing it and putting it to use in coming years.”

Wilczek received his bachelor of science in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1970, a master of arts in mathematics at Princeton University in 1972, and a PhD in physics at Princeton University in 1974. Currently he is the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wilczek, along with David Gross and H. David Politzer, was awarded the Nobel for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence KraussKrauss is a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and director of its Origins Project. called Wilczek the pre-eminent theoretical physicist of his generation.  

“Yes, he won the Nobel Prize for work he did as a graduate student when he was 21, but that just tells a small part of the story,” Krauss said. “He is a true polymath, working in and mastering almost every area of physics, but his interests range far more broadly. ...

"What has interested Frank in ASU in particular is the breadth of work being done here, the highly interactive transdisciplinary atmosphere — which Origins in particular benefits from — and the openness of the university, from the president on down, to new ideas."  

Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said he looked forward to Wilczek’s contributions to the university.

“He is sure to contribute seminally to the development of theoretical physics at ASU and to the teaching and mentoring of our students, as he has already done during previous stays as a visiting professor,” Garcia-Pichel said. “He will definitely help us attract the field's center of gravity closer to home.”

Garcia-Pichel announced Wednesday that Sidney Altman, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989, will join the School of Life Sciences at ASU.

On a trip to Arizona this past January, Wilczek toured an art installation called "Field of Lights" at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

The display, by the artist Bruce Munro, consists of thousands of spheres of colored light, slowly pulsating and strewn across the desert.

A photograph of the art installation

"Field of Lights," by Bruce Munro, at the Desert Botanical Garden, 2015. Photo by Adam Rodriguez

Wilczek wrote in a column for the Wall Street Journal that as he walked among the lights, "I felt I’d gotten an inkling of what thought looks like."

That experience, he wrote, changed the way he thinks about the brain, and himself, and it helped him conceive of a potentially innovative way of teaching the complexity of the brain.

“Frank Wilczek's quest for different ways of examining some of the most complicated questions and ideas fits perfectly with ASU’s distinguished faculty and the university’s principles of finding your own path to discovery, both in learning and research,” said Mark Searle, ASU's executive vice president and university provost.

Wilczek's Nobel Prize-winning work focused on the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces in nature, together with gravity, electromagnetism and the weak force.

“At the early part of the 20th century, when people looked at the interior of atoms, they found that the classic forces — gravity and electromagnetism — were inadequate,” Wilczek said. “Two new forces were required — the strong and the weak force. ... There was a long period of exploration.  It’s not easy to access the new forces, because nuclei are so small. [In the Nobel Prize-winning work] we put together some key experimental observations, together with the principles of quantum mechanics and relativity, to propose a complete, precise set of equations for the strong force: the theory known as quantum chromodynamics, or QCD.  We made many predictions based on this work, which proved to be correct.”

Wilczek and his colleagues discovered, theoretically, new subatomic particles called color gluons, which, he said, “hold atomic nuclei together.” Color gluons were subsequently observed experimentally.

His current research strikes a balance between theoretical ideas and observable phenomena, like applying particle physics to cosmology and the application of field theory techniques to condensed matter physics. He described it as “more nitty-gritty experimental realities.”

“If anything, in recent years my work has gotten more down to earth,” Wilczek said. “As time has gone on, my interests have expanded. I haven’t lost my interest in fundamental cosmology. ... What I hope to accomplish is to continue the same sort of thing I’ve always done, which is look for new opportunities.

"I’m a theorist, not an experimentalist, so it doesn’t take me long to change from one subject to another. ... I’m going to be looking into applications that are driven by our increasing control of the quantum world. I’ve also been exploring classical applications, like the physical basis of perception.”

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