Frank Wilczek’s new book, A Beautiful Question, is now out and if you’re at all interested in issues about beauty and the deep structure of reality, you should find a copy and spend some time with it. As he explains at the very beginning:
This book is a long meditation on a single question:
Does the world embody beautiful ideas?
To me (and I think to Wilczek), the answer to the question has always been an unambiguous “Yes”. The more difficult question is “what does such a claim about beauty and the world mean?” and that’s the central concern of the book.
Early chapters are of an historical nature, searching out the roots of such ideas, going back to the Pythagoreans and their beliefs about number and harmony, and then on to Plato and Platonism. The discussion of physics begins seriously with Kepler and Newton, and emphasizes very much the nature of light and color, topics about which Wilczek is currently actively pursuing new ideas. Maxwell then appears as the foundation of our modern understanding of light and electromagnetism.
Notions of symmetry (gauge symmetry) then begin to appear, as well as the surprising notion of quantization of wave motion. The basic ideas behind the Standard Model are extensively developed, emphasizing the connections to symmetry and beauty. Wilczek tries to make some changes in the conventional terminology, calling the Standard Model the Core Model, fields “fluids”, etc., in an attempt to bring the subject closer to a conventional language that might give the average person some feel for what is going on. He also brings in some of his personal experience: he is of course most well-known as one of those responsible for the final stage of the development of the Core Model.
Wilczek has been traveling a lot lecturing about this recently. You can for instance watch or hear him speak here, here and here, read extracts from the book here or here, find reviews here and here. The Wall Street Journal has “a week in the life” here. I very much like Wilczek’s comments in an essay here which explain how the book came about and who it was written for. His conclusion that he had written it to speak to himself as a child or adolescent very much resonates with my own experience writing a popular book.
The later parts of the book deal with more speculative questions about particle physics, and here I find that truly difficult issues appear: can we hope to agree on what beauty is in this context? Wilczek has never been a fan of string theory, and the various problematic claims about its “beauty” really don’t come up. He is however a fan of supersymmetric GUTs, and there issues of beauty become problematic. Yes, the fact that a family of SM fermions can be organized into a spinor representation of SO(10) is a beautiful fact, and likely indication of something deep about the world. But there’s a serious problem with getting unification by putting things into larger symmetry groups, without at the same time having a compelling idea for what breaks the larger symmetry to the smaller one we see. Just postulating a new set of GUT Higgs is not so pretty.
Similarly, the general idea of supersymmetry has beautiful aspects, but its implementation as a specific extension of the Poincaré group starts to become seriously unbeautiful once one introduces structures needed to break the supersymmetry to correspond to observation. I think one reason for Wilczek’s fondness for this idea is his involvement in the first calculation of coupling constant unification in such theories. A parent always thinks their child is unusually beautiful, but may not always be a very good judge of the matter…
Wilczek has made some bets that SUSY will appear at the LHC, but I think he’s going to be losing them. Garrett Lisi has an account here of one such bet, which had a problematic time limit. By next summer I think there will be enough data to start making a judgment about whether SUSY is there at LHC accessible energies. I’m quite curious to see how Wilczek and others of his generation that had so long invested their hope in this will react to a negative result. Will SUSY start looking a lot less beautiful?
Bonus item: In today’s Wall Street Journal there’s another profile of a particle physicist, of George Zweig, a co-discoverer of the quark theory which ultimately was vindicated by the later discovery of asymptotic freedom by Wilczek and others. Zweig is now starting a hedge fund, I hadn’t realized that he worked for quite a while at Renaissance, the Jim Simons hedge fund.
Update: This does seem to be the week for profiles of mathematicians and physicists in the media. There’s a wonderful one about Terry Tao in the Sunday New York Times magazine.
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