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Finding Freedom in Science

Dr. Frank Wilczek: Mathematical symmetry at the frontiers of physics

WilczekWhat shapes an illustrious scientific career? In Dr. Frank Wilczek’s case it was a combination of events, some that preceded his birth.

The difficult conditions that Wilczek’s grandparents and parents faced made them realise the value of education. Wilczek was encouraged to study so that he could become an engineer or a doctor.
Growing up during the Cold War era, Wilczek was exposed to science news on exciting prospects such as space exploration and frightening ones such as nuclear war. This exposure greatly impressed young Wilczek.

“I got the idea that there was secret knowledge that, when mastered, would allow Mind to control Matter in seemingly magical ways,” he writes in 'Doing Science Gave Me Freedom', anessay that appears in the ICTP book One Hundred Reasons to be a Scientist.

Religion was another aspect that contributed to Wilczek’s thinking. Although he was brought up as a Roman Catholic, he soon lost faith in conventional religion as his awareness of scientific knowledge increased. But Wilczek writes that a big part of his later quest has been “to regain some of the sense of purpose and meaning that was lost.”

Wilczek entered university studies with what he calls “amorphous ambitions” but soon found his way into the world of mathematics and then into physics. “I became aware that deep ideas involving mathematical symmetry were turning up at the frontiers of physics; specifically, the gauge theory of electroweak interactions, and the scaling symmetry in Wilson’s theory of phase transitions,” he writes.

Wilczek was the Dirac medallist in 1994, and in 2004, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the “discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.”


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