Frank Wilczek: “The Universe is a Strange Place”
Today 4:15 p.m.
1324 East Hall

Courtesy of Justin Knight Photography

Albert Einstein once said “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all science and all true art.”

Without a doubt, there will be plenty of beauty and mystery to experience this afternoon, when M.I.T. physics professor and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek examines a topsy-turvy reality full of wonder and mystique. While this may sound like the setting of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the topic of Wilczek’s talk is closer to home: our own universe. Part of the Department of Physics’ annual Ta-You Wu Lecture, his lecture is aptly titled “The Universe is a Strange Place.”

This strangeness comes partly from the humbling discovery that the matter that comprises us, the stars and the galaxies, constitutes only five percent of the mass of the universe. The other 95 percent is composed of mystifying dark matter and dark energy, the nature of which has yet to be determined.

Physics shows that even the parts of the world that are familiar to us are actually strange and rife with paradox — the world is not what it seems. In one such example, Wilczek will explain how what we perceive as empty space isn’t empty at all.

“What we do know reveals that everyday experience gives a misleading and incomplete and relatively impoverished picture of the world compared to what careful study gives,” Wilczek said.

Physics and philosophy merge in this lecture, as do physics and art. With a mystery novel on the horizon, Wilczek is also a writer and a poet.

“To be or not?” Wilczek waxes philosophical in his sonnet, “Virtual Particles,” anthologized in the “Norton Anthology of Light Verse.” “The choice seems clear enough / But Hamlet vacillated / So does this stuff.”

Physics and poetry may seem an unlikely duo, but both are mediums for understanding the world and for confronting the mysterious. And both are replete with beauty.

“Once you even begin to understand what science and mathematics are all about, a lot of it is driven by aesthetics. And it is, in fact, extremely beautiful,” Wilczek said. “It has to do with identifying patterns and the patterns making sense — these are the same kinds of things that are going on in art or poetry.”

A fundamental difference between art and physics, however, is that physics can turn metaphor into reality. One of the topics Wilczek will cover in his lecture is the idea of “The Music of the Void.” Empty space is actually “the Void,” a universal medium full of spontaneous activity. Particles thought of as the primary substance of the world (i.e. protons and neutrons) are merely ripples on top of this void. According to Einstein’s E=mc2, mass corresponds to energy, and the masses of these particles correspond to different frequencies, or tones, in this medium.

“The masses of the particles are not like, or similar to or metaphorically suggested by — they are the tones or frequencies of vibration patterns in dynamical voids.” Wilczek said.

It’s a poetic idea, but no figurative language is necessary. In his lecture, Wilczek will tackle some of the universe’s profound complexities, working to understand the beautiful and bizarre nature of reality and some of the most important questions of existence.

“Anyone who really wants to think about the kind of questions that are traditionally part of philosophy, you know, what the nature of reality is, where does it all come from, even what logic is, really owes it to themselves to learn about modern physics,” Wilczek said.

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