In 1972, Frank Wilczek and his thesis adviser, David Gross, discovered the basic theory of the strong force — the final pillar of the Standard Model of particle physics. Their work revealed the strange alchemy at work inside the nucleus of an atom. It also turned out to underpin almost all subsequent research into the early universe. Wilczek and Gross went on to share the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for the work. At the time it was done, Wilczek was just 21 years old.
His influence in the decades since has been profound. He predicted the existence of a hypothetical particle called the axion, which today is a leading candidate for dark matter. He published groundbreaking papers on the nature of the early universe. And just last year, his prediction of the “anyon” — a strange type of particle that only shows up in two-dimensional systems — was experimentally confirmed.
Wilczek was raised in Queens, New York, the son of immigrants and the product of public schools. He finished high school in two years and college in three. He has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 20 years, though pre-pandemic he spent much of his time flying around the world to his concurrent appointments at Arizona State University, Stockholm University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where he directs the Wilczek Quantum Center.
Wilczek’s latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, comes out today. Wilczek told Quanta that he was “as proud of this book as anything I’ve ever done in my life.”
Quanta caught up with him twice at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, via Zoom in December. The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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