Worth a read: Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek

I still remember the classic picture of the atom from my Michigan high school physics class, about the same time MIT professor Frank Wilczek was in a similar class in New York City in the late 1960s. Called the Rutherford model, that atom was pictured as a miniature solar system. with electron “planets” revolving around a sun-like nucleus, which was in turn made up of what we thought then were the core particles of matter – protons and neutrons. By the time Wilczek left graduate school, he had described some of the key mathematics underlying the yet tinier elementary particles making up those protons and neutrons, and helped to bust up that conventional view of matter. For that work on “asymptotic freedom” he shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. Most people still retain that old picture of the atom, however.

Rutherford Model

The Rutherford model of the atom. Source: Wikipedia

In his new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (Penguin Press, 2021) Frank Wilczek goes back to the basics, attempting to explain that much more complicated view of energy, matter, and time itself [1] to an audience of non-physicists. He does it impressively well.

There are basically two ways to approach writing a book like this. One is to have it build on “prerequisite” science and mathematics knowledge. The alternative, which this author chooses, is to keep the prerequisite science and math as minimal as possible, instead using complementary language from outside these disciplines from the worlds in which most of the intended readers live daily. The words and phrases by which we understand things often come from the literature, religion, and secular philosophies of our forebears. As Albert Einstein (who would sometimes do the same) once remarked, this is “the water in which [we] swim.”

Complementarity

I first ran into Frank Wilczek’s expansive views on the physics principle of complementarity, which is the last of his book’s ten keys, in an essay collection edited by John Brockman entitled This Idea is Brilliant (Harper Perennial, 2018). Complementarity is the concept that “one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have very different or even contradictory properties.” He applies this principle to the thorny, and seemingly contradictory, issue of whether matter is fundamentally made up of particles or, alternatively, energy wave/force fields.  For Wilczek, it simply depends on which version of mathematics you are using to describe it. In one form, particle physics usually “works,” while in another, so does wave theory. For most of us, most of time, so does the basic math of gravity as defined by Isaac Newton in the 17th century simply “work.” Newtonian physics only falls apart in conditions much more extreme than we usually worry about. When an apple falls into a black hole, however, do not use Newton’s math.

To help with that reconciliation Wilczek reaches to other “complementary language” descriptors from outside physics. In the end, “particles are avatars of fields,” he says. Perhaps more controversially, Wilczek flirts, as Albert Einstein did (to the consternation of his friends) with the language of religion. The author has noted in an interview that the book’s title itself is a direct nod to the more popular use of the term fundamental to refer to a branch of popular American religious belief, which he says gave the publishers pause. [2] However, he confidently asserts that his ten fundamental “keys” of physics have a better predictive value for the nature of “reality” than do “complementary” religious ones. I have quoted in a prior post his appropriation of religious language in the book’s preface to get to the nub:

“I like to state it this way: In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is. In that spirit, we can interpret the search for knowledge as a form of worship, and our discoveries as revelations.” (page xiii)

To help resolve this gap between “particle math” and “wave math,” and the reality that we cannot measure both a particle’s position and its velocity at the same time, Wilczek draws a comparison from music: “Harmony is like position, while melody is like velocity. We can’t do those two forms of processing at the same time. They interfere with each other.” In other words, if you want to analyze a chord structure, you need to stop the music. If you want to “hear” a passage’s melody, you need to fade down the harmony tracks.

Free will versus determinism

Albert Einstein was a committed determinist, asserting the state of the universe at time t completely determines the state of the universe at any future time t+1. His heated debate with Niels Bohr and the younger quantum physicists over the role of probability at subatomic levels was the source of his famous quote that “God does not play dice with the universe.” However, neither of these schools of physics has found a “physics basis” for the concept of human free will or volition. Frank Wilczek again reaches across the disciplines for useful language to describe this dilemma:

“Free will is an essential concept in law and morality, while physics has been successful without it. Removing free will from law, or injecting it into physics, would make a mess of those subjects. It is totally unnecessary! Free will and physical determinism are complementary aspects of reality.”

Wilczek is likewise able to draw across our various “languages” to describe a physicist’s conception of such difficult concepts as time (“We are gifted with an abundance of inner time”), the light color spectrum (“Atoms sing songs that bare their souls, in light“), and consciousness (“Our skulls host mind-blowing combinatorial explosions).

It has been said that, apart from the Bible, the best-selling book that most buyers have never completely read is Stephen Hawking’s book on cosmology and physics, A Brief History of Time. I finished it, but I will admit that my eyes were glazed over a lot of the time. Wilczek’s book has much less “eye-glaze” time, and almost no math. It is worth a read, even if you need to skip over your own eye-glaze parts.


Notes:

  1. While we usually express the third term in Einstein’s famous E = mc2 as “the speed of light,” it can be thought of as a measure of time itself.
  2. American Christian Fundamentalism has much of its roots in a series of essays entitled “The Fundamentals,” published between 1910 and 1915. These essays centered on six “fundamental” points of Christian doctrine, which largely remain the focus of American Evangelicalism today (as opposed to, say, the “social gospel”):
    • The doctrinal inerrancy of the Bible
    • The literal nature of the biblical accounts, especially regarding the miracles of Jesus and the six-day Creation account in Genesis
    • The virgin birth of Jesus
    • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
    • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (“Christ died for my sins”)

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