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Q&A with Frank Wilczek on the Materiality of Vacuum

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Posted on January 24, 2017 - 6:29pm

Written by Colton Smith

As a blog writer for the Origins Project I strive to introduce the world to amazing people. As a neuroscientist I strive to learn what makes them tick. On January 23rd, 2016 I accomplished both of these goals when I met with Dr. Frank Wilczek. Dr. Wilczek is a theoretical physicist who holds the position of Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is also an Origins Project Distinguished Professor at Arizona State University. He received the Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work on asymptotic freedom in the theory of strong interaction.

Colton Smith: I’m here with Dr. Wilczek at Arizona State University and we are quickly approaching the date of his lecture on January 31st. We spoke to each other for a few hours yesterday just to get to know one another, but now I think it’s time that we let the Valley of the Sun in on our conversation.

Dr. Wilczek, yesterday we spoke to each other about many things and I know that we were both curious to see how many people would be attending the event. I did some research and discovered that we are completely sold out for this Origins event.

Frank Wilczek: I only learned about it after we talked. (Laughing) Sold out. Well in advance too!

Smith: I must admit it was wonderful to hear that we have so many people interested in coming to an event like this.

Wilczek: Especially since the title is somewhat mystifying and intimidating.

Smith: I’m sure it’s a little confusing to some!

So, the idea of this interview is to get people to know you a bit more on a personal level before they come and watch you give a big physics lecture. It can be a little intimidating to watch a Nobel laureate give a talk on physics. Especially considering most of your audience is going to be laypeople interested in the universe at large.

Frank Wilczek

Smith: My first question for you, as simple as it sounds, is why are you here at ASU. Why here of all places?

Wilczek: Well there’s a certain contingency in me being at ASU. But mostly it’s the fact that Lawrence Krauss and I go back a long way. Long before he came to ASU.

Smith: So you two have been friends for while?

Wilczek: Yes, we’ve been friends for a long time. When he came to ASU he advertised its glories to me, [Laughing] as he did when he was at Case Western. I also have other friends here such as Paul Davies. So my wife Betsy and I decided to give Arizona a try and spend a month here. That was already about 6 or 7 years ago. We’ve enjoyed the experience and have been coming back every January, finding more and more friends, and finding it reliably refreshing. The idea just grew on me that why don’t we start expanding this relationship: stay two months instead of one. And we’ve found that even more refreshing.

Smith: Perhaps we can get you here for 12 months a year?

Wilczek: In the very long run, it’s a possibility. We’ve established a whole network of friends and we very much enjoy the spirit of the senses here. I very much enjoy different kinds of experiences. We are also spending time in Stockholm and Shanghai. So we’re all over the place.

Smith: As a scientist, what about ASU attracts you?

Wilczek: Well it’s a very special place. The more I experience it the more I realize that it truly is Michael Crow’s vision of the New American University. It really is serving a tremendous variety of students, there’s an entrepreneurial spirit, and the professors are encouraged to think outside of the box and try new directions. Also, I’ve been very well supported in terms of resources, which have made things easier. So, what’s not to like? It’s a comfortable place that allows me to work and think.

Smith: I’m sure as a physicist you need to feel comfortable enough in your environment to be able think clearly.

Wilczek: It helps a lot. I especially enjoy taking walks up A-mountain to think.

Smith: That’s wonderful. So, the Origins event is quickly approaching and “Materiality of Vacuum” is the title. I must admit that even as a scientist myself I found the title, although perplexing, somewhat confusing. What does “Materiality of Vacuum” mean?

Wilczek: The basic message is that what we perceive in everyday life as empty space, a sort of empty stage in which the material world plays out, turns out to be very much not empty. It’s actually very structured and has a life of its own! The same techniques that we use to analyze materials, especially when it comes to their deep structure and quantum theory, are the same techniques that turn out to be fruitful in understanding what’s going on in, what appears to be, empty space. To these more refined instruments this “empty space” is not empty.

There’s been a remarkable exchange of ideas and commonality of understanding developing over the course of the 20th century. The ideas that were developed to understand how elementary particles interact and how materials interact couldn’t be more different superficially, but in reality turn out to be described by the same concepts. It’s very fruitful to think of what appears to the senses as empty space, through which elementary particles move, as a material whose properties condition the things that we see. It has its own spontaneous activity that we call quantum fluctuations, it has density (which is very characteristic of what we think of as matter), and it also literally has what we call condensates that embed the entire universe in a big cloud.

Smith: A cloud?

Wilczek: Yes, it’s called the Higgs Field. The fact that particles are moving through the Higgs Field gives them different properties and makes some of them have non-zero mass, whereas in the absence of the Higgs Field they wouldn’t. It’s like fish swimming through an ocean that changes their properties. It changes how they move. And that’s not the only condensate! There are other ones as well, that aren’t as renowned for some reason, but are very similar.

Smith: So I’m guessing that it’s ludicrous to think that what we perceive as nothing is actually nothing.

Wilczek: It’s not nothing. We understand this when we analyze materials in quantum mechanics using the quantum theory of matter. This allows for a very deep way to understand the universe. The way we analyze it is in terms of the packets of energy that move around that are very particle like. Things like phonons, or dressed electrons, which are quite different in their properties than bare electrons. There’s a whole panoply of phonons, things that to a person embedded in the solid would look like elementary particles, but are actually different than the one’s we see in our material. So that's what I am conveying by saying Materiality of Vacuum. Materiality and Vacuum are really the same thing.

Smith: I think that only makes sense in the world of physics. The common definitions for materiality and vacuum couldn’t be more opposite.

Wilczek: The manifestations of course are very different in detail but the deep concepts and the equations can actually be mapped onto one another. They have the same sort of resemblance as maps of different kinds of topography. For example you could have a map of the Earth or you could have a map of Mars, but they’re both still recognizably maps. The other thing it suggests however is that if we live in a material, we just live in one particular material. There could be other materials! Also, our material could change in extreme conditions!

Smith: Are you suggesting that the physics that we’ve come to know and understand may not be the only type? That there may be other manifestations altogether?

Wilczek: Yes! Things would look quite different. The kinds of elementary particles there are would be different; maybe even the dimension of space would be different.

Smith: Do you mean to say alternative dimensions? Alternative realities? What do you mean?

Wilczek: Let me make an analogy that captures the essence of the matter. We live, certainly for practical purposes, in three dimensions of space. But we can make two-dimensional worlds, which is the basis for modern day computing. Computers, which are basically two-dimensional arrangements of materials, make up a two-dimensional world. The particles that move in these arrangements really only move in flatland.

Smith: Wow, I’ve never thought of our computers as two-dimensional worlds.

Wilczek: They’re two-dimensional worlds. If there were intelligent beings embodied in that world, which could happen someday, their world would be a two-dimensional world. Someone in that world may even have the imagination to postulate that “it could be possible to have a three-dimensional world with different laws!”

Smith: Just like we can imagine higher dimensions than our own.

Wilczek: We could very well be in that position. There could be other potential arrangements of physical reality that obey the same deep principles of quantum theory and general relativity that are governed by the same equations but in different realizations as different materials.

Smith: That makes our reality seem a whole lot less… simple than it truly is.

Wilczek: That’s sort of the context that you can think about these things. Another possibility is to imagine that the material that we take for granted as what we call vacuum might undertake phase transitions that may boil or freeze under extreme conditions. Now we know that there were extreme conditions in the early universe and our theories tell us that there were, in a real sense, changes of phase where some of these condensates boiled.

Smith: It sounds as if the universe is, perhaps not a living entity, but certainly one that changes.

Wilczek: It’s a changing thing that’s evolving and is dynamic. According to our best understanding the properties of space were radically different in the early universe than they are now. You can also make wilder speculations about there being a multiverse or what’s called an inflationary universe, where you have phase transitions where space itself can rapidly expand. There may also be baby universes. Forty years ago these were wild speculations.

Smith: [Laughing] Not so wild anymore? 

Wilczek: [Laughing] They’re not so wild anymore! The theories about unification suggest that there may be many alterative realizations of our equations with different base properties. In physics we refer to them as different vacua. So just like they can be made of different kinds of materials, they can also possess radically different properties. And in the evolution of the universe you can have big bangs that sprout these alternative realizations of the equations in different places. The basic laws and rules of cosmology suggest that these things are possible. These are very popular scenarios that serious physicists and cosmologists devote their careers to these days.

Smith: While we’re on the topic of popular scenarios, do you think that there’s life somewhere out there in our universe or possibly in another dimension? With all this talk of invisible materials and alternative dimensions one could speculate that we aren’t the only one’s in existence. It’s kind of crazy question. 

Wilczek: No, it’s not a crazy question. In fact it’s a very topical question. We may get real answers to this question in the foreseeable future, in our own universe and in our vacuum. Possibly on distant planets around distant suns. Or even on some of the moons in our solar system.

Smith: It’s not too farfetched to believe as long as they possess habitable zones.

Wilczek: They might very well support some type of life. That would be very interesting to know. And people are developing techniques that will potentially discover life if it really does happen elsewhere. Modifications of the atmosphere that allow for life that can be detected from a distance and the chemical composition of atmospheres can be measured. In the case of our solar system objects we are now able to get close up to some of them and do all kinds of tests to detect life.

The more radical possibility is that there are regions in the very distant parts of the universe, which of course no one’s ever been able to see, that might have radically different properties. Possibly with different numbers of dimensions. There might even be more than just the four interactions we have here: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. There might be just two or even six! There may even be more than just six types of quarks!

Smith: Well it’s a bit arbitrary that our universe has four interactions as opposed to six.

Wilczek: And we really don’t understand why that is. In fact in more speculative frameworks, like grand unified theories or in string theory, there are many more possibilities. If those ideas are on the right track it’s quite plausible that there are distant parts of the universe, that evolved from the big bang and separated from us, that have radically different properties. Some of them may support life even more abundantly than our universe. Actually our universe doesn’t support life very well at all!

Smith: We’re the only life-forms we know of so far! And even if we do find life it could just be a simple bacterial life form.

Wilczek: Yes, the emergence of intelligence life to the extent it has on earth is a very recent phenomenon in cosmic time. There are anthropic arguments that postulate that the universe is the way it is for us to observe it, but I think those arguments have a lot to answer for. Especially considering there aren’t that many of us and there’s probably better ways to do it more efficiently. Maybe there are parts of the universe in which it is done efficiently and we just so happen to be in particularly unfavorable place.

It opens up all kinds of interesting issues of philosophy and cosmology. To me, an equally interesting challenge of creativity is to use what we know about the universe to design worlds that have useful properties that we can exploit. It’s a nice way to think about it.

Smith: What you’re doing is a wonderful thing. You’re bringing these deep concepts about the nothingness of our universe to the people of the Valley and showing them that it’s so much more than that. Why do you care so much?

Wilczek: I’m not sure how to answer a question like that. [Laughing] Why do you do anything? I find it very stimulating and gratifying to think about these things and I want to share it. It means so much to me when I see people “get it.” I know that I have something to give people and hopefully I can enrich their lives. Perhaps I can help them realize that there’s so much more to reality than superficial appearances. Maybe they’ll think more differently about their place in the world. And perhaps a few young people will decide to join in on the adventure.

Smith: At the very least I’m sure you’ll be able to convince people that reality is much more complex than they once thought.

Wilczek: More complex and also fundamentally different and richer. I think of my job as an augmenter of reality.

Smith: That's certainly a bold title.

Wilczek: [Laughing] Or at least helping reality to augment itself. It seems like an obviously good thing and I want to do it not only for myself but also for everyone.

Smith: That message fits perfectly in line with the Origins Project and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that we’re grateful to have you here at ASU. I have a feeling that your talk on January 31st is going to inspire more than just a few people to join you on that adventure. Is there anything else you would like to add before you give your lecture?

Wilczek: [Laughing] Well I want to leave a few surprises! One thing that we didn’t talk too much about is our ability to construct worlds. In my lecture I’ll show we can construct two-dimensional worlds that allows us to do “tricks” that we can’t do in our three-dimensional world.

Smith: I think a wonderfully complex idea is that the second-dimension possesses memory whereas the third-dimension doesn’t. And when you jump from the second to the third that memory disappears.

Wilczek: [Laughing] It’s like exposing your brain to a strong magnetic field and just wiping the memory clean. The extra dimension allows the memory to dissipate. I will go into more detail on that topic during my presentation. I think it’s particularly fascinating to show that not only can worlds be different but also they can be useful.

Smith: Well, I’m excited. I know I’ll be there to see your presentation. And of course after your presentation you and Dr. Lawrence Krauss are going to have an unscripted conversation.

Wilczek: It is unscripted. [Laughing] Certainly so far it’s unscripted.

Smith: It’s one of the reason Origins attracts so many people. It’s real scientists having real conversations. And of course the audience gets to be part of that conversation. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. See you again soon!

Wilczek: Thank you! We’ll see you next week!

Learn more about the Origins Lecture: Materiality of a Vacuum - Late Night Thoughts of a Physicist that is set for Tuesday, January 31, 2017. This event will be live streamed.