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Learning with a Nobel laureate

Frank Wilczek offering new interdisciplinary, four-week course in perception and gadgetry

Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek at ASU
January 11, 2018

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Of the 18,891 classes offered at Arizona State University, PHY 498: Workshop in Perception Technology stands out.

It’s taught by theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek. It’s about color, and you have to know some stuff to take it (but not everything).

“It’s kind of a hands-on introduction to making things, but it’s in the context of doing meaningful things about color,” Wilczek said. “Mostly.”

And it only runs for four Saturdays in February.

A different kind of color

Wilczek won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004 for work he did as a graduate student at Princeton when he was 21.

His current theoretical research includes work on axions, anyons and time crystals, concepts in physics that he named and pioneered. Each has become a major focus of worldwide research.

Although color has run through Wilczek’s work as a theoretical physicist, this class won’t be like anything in the design school.

“It’s the same word, but a very different kind of thing,” he said. “Color in the theory of the strong interaction is the key concept, and I got the Nobel Prize for work in that subject, for basically figuring out what color was all about in the strong interaction.”

The strong interaction is one of the four basic forces of nature. It’s the one that is responsible for nuclear physics, and it governs how quarks and muons interact.

“In that context, what color means is not the same thing as what we perceive as color or talk about in everyday life,” Wilczek said. “It’s more like an electric charge, but it’s not an electric charge — it’s a new kind of charge. It’s called color because there are three of them. ... In the strong interaction color comes in three varieties that people call red, white and blue sometimes.”

The class is mostly about color perception. There will be some introductory background material that’s more general.

“People will be invited to think about other things ... basically sight and sound (no smell, no taste),” he said.

What to expect in the class

In recent years Wilczek has become interested in color in a familiar sense, what we talk about in everyday life as color.

He promises an interactive class.

“They’ll interact with each other, the teaching assistants, with me and with the gadgetry,” he said. “It’s very much meant to be a hands-on course where they will learn how to do basic programming that’s relevant to making useful little devices and also the machinery of things called arduinos. … And then I’ll be encouraging and inviting students to do independent projects later in the course based on the skills they’ve acquired.”

Students will fiddle around with LEDs, LED arrays, sound generators, sensors and arduinos, kits for building devices that can sense and control objects. It sounds like an art class, and Wilczek hopes some artists become involved.

“It’s interdisciplinary,” he said. “It’s also meant to open doors. ... There will be a bit of theory, but mainly it’s meant to get people thinking for themselves.”

It’s a class Wilczek wishes he had had when he was younger. When he grew up, his father was an engineer.

“He had a lot of gadgets lying around the house and early TVs and radios and things like that, and that was a lot of fun to play with, but when I went to school and started studying to be a theoretical physicist, all that stuff that I kind of enjoyed receded into the background,” he said. “Getting back into it is a joy for me. People do have to specialize to do frontier work, but I think there’s a lot to be said also for interdisciplinary work, especially when you’re just beginning deciding what you want to do.”

The class is open to advanced students within their majors. 

“You do have to know a lot of stuff,” Wilczek said. It will be helpful to be conversant with simple calculus and some computer programming.

“It depends on how well you want to understand what you’re doing,” he said. “That’s another thing students have to learn: You don’t have to know everything to do something. I have a favorite saying of mine: The work will teach you how to do it.”


It's small group study and research for advanced students within their majors. Major status in the department or instructor approval is required.

It's offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and held each Saturday in February, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The last day to enroll is Feb. 3.

Books recommended for the course (all three are optional):

• "Arduino Workshop," by John Boxall (No Starch Press)
• "Python Crash Course," by Eric Matthes (No Starch Press)
• "Sprint," by Jake Knapp (Simon & Schuster)

“I think it will be fun,” Wilczek said. “It will be an adventure.”

Top photo: In addition to guiding research and giving scholarly lectures, the 2004 physics Nobel laureate and Distinguished Origins Professor Frank Wilczek (shown in his Tempe campus office Jan. 5) will be teaching a course on color perception in February. Wilczek also has appointmentsIn addition to being Distinguished Origins Professor at ASU, Wilczek is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Center for Theoretical Physics, MIT; the founding director of the T. D. Lee Institute and chief scientist at the Wilczek Quantum Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University; and professor of physics at Stockholm University. at MIT, Stockholm University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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