The Gospel According to Frank: A Nobel Laureate’s Naïveté
By Joshua RoebkeMarch 11, 2021
Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek
When I finally arrived at the designated brownstone, a man shushed me from the stoop. He had rolled up his white sleeves to unveil the cobweb tattoos spun around each elbow, but otherwise he was dressed for an auspicious event, in matching brown waistcoat, slacks, and loafers. He whispered: “The guest of honor’s doing a podcast in the front room.” I tiptoed up the stairs and down a long, mirrored hallway. I had never heard of a podcast, but it sounded like the future. In the back living room, the other mute guests nodded hellos and circled hors d’oeuvres, on a table enlivened with purple lupines. “Frank should be done in just a minute,” our hostess mouthed.
Frank Wilczek, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics a year and a half earlier, bounded in from the front room. He looked genuinely surprised by the number of people who had gathered to celebrate his book, Fantastic Realities: 49 Mind Journeys and a Trip to Stockholm, a collection of essays and his wife’s blog posts about receiving the Nobel. He introduced himself to the guests, effusively and one by one.
Wilczek was short and thin with monastic hair and Mr. Peabody glasses. He wore a black seersucker jacket, white running shoes, and a black T-shirt, from which a neon green cartoon character peeked through his open jacket. When he shook my hand and introduced himself, I said my name. He knew who I was.
I was the assistant editor at a glossy magazine who had recently commissioned a feature article from him, which he killed after I had returned his first draft with substantial edits. I now apologized, just as my boss had instructed, and Wilczek smiled and said, “No hard feelings.” But he did not move to introduce himself to the next person. He looked at me expectantly. I did not know what else to say, so I asked about the neon green figure on his shirt. He issued a fusillade of snorts and replied, “I guess you’re just not very cool, huh?” The character’s name was Vendetta. I had never seen the cartoon Making Fiends.
To numb my embarrassment and occupy my dumb mouth, I started to ascend the ladder of intoxication while nibbling at cupcakes branded with a cover of his book. But Frank’s wife and co-author, Betsy Devine, put me at ease. She hit Frank with a mousepad for making a poor joke, and she handed me a piece of chocolate and said: “Take it. All kids like candy.” When my glass was empty, she sent over red wine in the hands of an elegant woman with gray hair and precise bangs.
As the party waned, I talked to Frank about physics, the subject on which our interests most overlapped. “I just read a book that has changed my view of quantum mechanics,” he said. I was too merry, by that point, to take in this view and he was too self-involved to leave me enough crumbs to trail his mind. But he did give me a signed copy of his book, inscribed: “May all the forces be with you!”
As I left the party, I heard one man ask another why Frank had won the Nobel Prize. “It has to do with the strong force, the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics. He discovered Asymptotic Freedom in graduate school,” the first man said, well rehearsed. “Enough said,” was the reply.
Frank Wilczek does not inhabit the same reality as either you or I. Not only did he win the Nobel Prize for a feat of mathematics performed at the age of 21, but his CV lists 33 other awards and honors, from fourth prize in a national science fair to his MacArthur Genius Grant. Still, his laurels afford him no rest. At the age of 69, he does superlative research in at least four subdisciplines of physics, most of which he founded. He holds down four academic jobs in three different countries and writes a monthly column about physics for The Wall Street Journal. Even his website is beyond up to date. Under the header “Assets,” he lists more than 500 publications, including a few, when I looked, that were yet to appear, such as his latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.
Rather than detail 49 fantastic ones, as he did 15 years earlier, Wilczek reduces his focus in this book to our one common reality, no matter how different you and he and I. The conceit is again numeric, as so many popular physics titles are — Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Six Easy Pieces, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments — in the hopes that you will purchase a copy as readily as you indulge in clickbait.
The conceit works. Carlo Rovelli, who published two books about reality and its seven lessons, has sold millions of copies worldwide, even outselling another cardinal book, Fifty Shades of Grey, in his native Italy. Yet, such titles are also a pique. Why this number? Are these really all the fundamentals we need? Why stop at 10? Why do we even need that many keys to open the door to reality?
Wilczek ignores these and other such questions in his preface. He wrote this book, he explains, for the many people whom he has met who are curious about physics, whether they be “lawyers, doctors, artists, students, teachers, parents, or simply curious people.” He is kindly offering these “friends” a few lessons, so they might regale others with talk of physics at future parties. The rest of us are lucky enough to audit his master class by reading this book.
I was one of the curious people to whom Frank once lectured at a party, long ago. And as a onetime student of physics, I have often been so regaled. My evaluation for this course is simple: skip it. And if someone tries to give you physics lessons at a party, flee.
Wilczek boasts in his preface that he was “wonderstruck” at the “clarity and depth” of his own thoughts while writing this book. Yet Fundamentals is shallow, a kiddie pool of ideas. Even worse, the water is turbid, muddied by too much poor writing. There are clods of redundancies, repetitions, clichés, and baffling word choices that I longed to scoop out. Every mind is “boggled,” every success is “swashbuckling.” He is an author who will “spotlight a couple of highlights” yet think himself poetic. And, like so many writers of popular science, Wilczek outfits his reader with ridiculous aids and floaties, by way of dumpy metaphors, because he does not trust that she can swim. The reader longs for a deeper end to brave on her own, so that she might feel buoyant, if only for a moment, atop fluent ideas. Instead, she barely gets wet.
At least two ideas so astonished Wilczek that he dubs these his themes. The first astonishment is that the universe is large, yet “[w]e are gifted with an abundance of inner time” with which to contemplate it. Before allowing himself to explain that inner plenty, however, he insists we reconsider the notion of time, “[l]est we drown in vagueness and nonsense.” Wilczek then asserts, vaguely and nonsensically: “Time seems, as a matter of psychology, less tangible than space.” Thereafter, the most profound explanation that he can muster is that time is what a clock measures and everything that changes is a clock. I suppose everything abides, but try telling the hour with a rock or a banana. I have stumbled into greater profundity in conversations with musicians, stoners, and long-haul truckers.
When Wilczek finally enumerates our temporal plenty, he names a few prodigious male musicians and mathematicians who died young, such as Mozart, and insists that the rest of us can also “squeeze a lot of creative thoughts into a human lifetime.” He even estimates the number of thoughts that we can squeeze on average: a billion.
This calculation is worse than trite. Wilczek must have dedicated a majority of his time to studying the universe, because he has not given much thought to those who are not laureates and not paid to think, whose quotidian struggle to earn a living and take care of children does not afford them so much time for contemplation. Unable to fathom lives unlike his own, he is a poor teacher who believes his class is the only demand on a student’s time.
Worse even than his cursory peep at the intractable puzzle of time is Wilczek’s naïveté about science and progress. His faith in science is so unquestioning that it becomes a religion. To study the physical world is to learn God’s works. Discoveries are revelations. Wilczek even issues a commandment as his second theme: to understand the universe, we must be “born again.”
This would be unremarkable if Wilczek did not proclaim this commandment so literally, yet so inconsistently. He dedicates pages to how babies learn to navigate the world. Yet, his research amounts to spending a little time with his grandchild rather than consulting developmental psychologists. Babies, he says, are unschooled “little scientists, making experiments and drawing conclusions.” My own toddler does not conform to the scientific method, but I will grant the kid’s ignorant curiosity.
As children, we lack the instruments to observe the world as it truly is, so we construct a model of it bound by our perceptions. We do this to survive. We learn to avoid what kills us because such information is more important than knowing that protons are made up of quarks.
Wilczek thus believes that, “as infants, we learn to misunderstand the world, and ourselves.” Humans do not know reality as it is. But scientists do, presumably because they are grown children whose every need is met by others. So, Wilczek asks the reader to be reborn into her original ignorance and accept science as her savior.
Surely this rebirth would only reproduce the reader’s misunderstanding of the world. But what Wilczek means is nothing more than a trope. He wants us to gaze upon the world with childlike wonder. He wants the reader to open her mind to the universe beyond her senses. Any adult who picks up this book already accepts that creed. And the rest of us do not need any more people in the world acting like children.
Wilczek is so cheery in his devotion to science and its riches that his middle chapters devolve into prosperity gospels. After an illiberal discussion of “hunter-gatherer societies” in the introduction, Wilczek says that such peoples never knew what they were missing, because they lacked modern science and technology. “But now,” he writes, “we know that they were missing a lot.”
That “lot” was consumer goods and services. Wilczek points his reader to a plot of the total gross domestic product against the past 500 years and asserts that the exponential growth exhibited by this graph “speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” It would have to, because Wilczek ends the discussion there.
A few chapters later, however, Wilczek evangelizes for wealth and consumption. He says “there is still plenty of room for [economic] growth” so many times that it becomes a mantra. Yet, he conflates a physicists’ definition of energy with that of oilmen, and he defines his own unit to measure consumption. He calls this “an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically, beyond scratching out a bare subsistence.” The United States has the greatest quantity and thus the greatest economy, objectively of course.
Despite our greatness, even greater riches await. Wilczek contends: “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” This boundless future is in the stars. Literally. “Science reveals that the nearby world contains, in known and accessible forms, far more energy and usable material than humans presently exploit. This realization empowers us and should whet our ambitions.”
We may already be gluttons for energy, but Wilczek believes that we should feed our appetite with more exotic cuisine rather than attempting a diet. And we should do so at any cost. The need for development is so great that Wilczek refers to pandemics and natural disasters not as human tragedies but as “significant setbacks” to our economic ambitions. He even argues that countries should avoid nuclear war because: “Human progress would be set back catastrophically, and perhaps irreversibly.” Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but some opinions are more entitled than others. Such arguments may befit a column in The Wall Street Journal, but they are unnerving in a book about our shared reality.
At the end of each chapter, Wilczek goes even further in his prognostications, foretelling what science will bring humanity in the distant future. He allows his fancy only to make chicken flights, however, before skidding along well-trodden ground. He largely echoes ideas from the utopian science fiction he quotes: we will one day construct computers the size of mountains and employ Dyson spheres to harvest energy from stars and support life for the coming billennia. That life, however, will not be human, because “the vanguard of intelligence will pass from lightly adorned Homo sapiens to cyborgs and super-minds.”
Brilliant bots will become immortal, Wilczek says. And they will employ time crystals, whose structure repeats in time rather than space, a structure that Wilczek and an uncited co-author developed a few years ago. These bots will spend their days reliving pleasurable experiences over and over again. Wilczek longs for such immortality himself, and to decry it is “sour grapes,” he says. “The destruction of memory and learning by death is horrifying and wasteful.” It is not the human death that is horrible to Wilczek but rather the loss of knowledge.
Physicists often detach the mundane from the sublime. Their theories are always called “super” or “grand.” Yet Wilczek is more detached than most. He is so blithe to the possible ends of physics, and such a purist, that he claims physics merely brings people together. “When we see ourselves as patterns in matter, it is natural to draw our circle of kinship very wide, indeed.” We are all made of matter, so our differences are immaterial.
Physics is so benevolent, in his telling, that any technology it helps build must also be benign. To say nothing of nuclear weapons, because he hardly does, artificial intelligence could never be racist, for instance, because: “Slavery […] is almost universally condemned, as are racism, sexism, nationalistic aggression, and cruelty to animals. […] With progress, we’ve come to consider people and creatures as having intrinsic value and being worthy of profound respect, just like ourselves.” And just like other futurists, Wilczek is blind to the present and the past.
When Wilczek stops pontificating about economics and technology to describe physics, Fundamentals is a fine book. He nearly redeems himself with an intriguing final chapter about the need for complementary, yet contradictory, descriptions of reality. He offers concise explanations of quantum field theory, cosmic distance ladders, GPS, and carbon dating.
But even when he is describing physics, his prose is often so hurried that it reads like a poor term paper or grant proposal. He cites no other scholars, except when he allows more famous men to speak for him. And his examples are so blurry that it is hard to make out the details of what he is saying. GPS, for instance, allows us “to align large machines precisely.” Even worse: “Understanding how to control the common external world […] is, of course, a vital practical problem, with many aspects,” of which he lists none.
Such drab and hasty composition is particularly conspicuous when Wilczek describes his own accomplishments, which he goes out of his way to do. Wilczek describes quarks as if physicists observe them as they do any other particle, as if they capture them in photographs or render them visible through their fractional charges. They cannot do this, in part because quarks are never alone. Wilczek knows this. He even says that he and his graduate advisor “wanted to find a theory that explained that paradoxical behavior of quarks. […] Thus, we hunted for a theory based on quantum fields,” the invisible substrate from which physicists like to extract matter and force.
Wilczek has previously admonished historians for getting the details of discoveries wrong, yet his own account is what historians call a rational reconstruction, or a rationalization of events after the fact. As someone writing a book about the history of physics, I would call it an equivocation of convenience.
His advisor actually assigned Wilczek this quarry to eliminate quantum fields from physics, not describe quarks. As for the other physicists who led successful hunts at the same time, he relegates them to footnotes or parentheticals. In fact, at the end of the book, there is nary a bibliography or note, and he acknowledges just nine people, five of whom are his agents and editors.
In simplifying complex ideas and events, Wilczek’s writing too often becomes simple or simply wrong. He quotes another laureate on a French recipe for doing physics but mistakes the meaning. He claims that physicists have theories for all the four known forces, which “work together like a well-ordered machine.” They do not, else they would no longer have a job. He leaves the reader with the impression that his own discovery, Asymptotic Freedom, unifies all the forces at high energies, which it does not quite do. Wilczek knows this, too. In the book he published 15 years ago, he described much of this physics more honestly, and more compellingly.
Perhaps the worst sin that Wilczek commits in his book, however, is unoriginality. Even with all that inner time to contemplate the universe, his examples are banal (bats do not hear or see as we do, dogs are more adept at smelling), his heroes and influences exactly who you would expect (Einstein, Feynman), and the writers he quotes are all dead white males (Yeats, Blake). He might write better if he had read a poet from this century, perhaps Danez Smith, Layli Long Soldier, or even Frederick Seidel. Although I’m not suggesting he reinvent the wheel, I do wonder why he drives on so many flat tires.
Students who finish this class will not understand physics or reality any better than when they started. And they will not be more entertaining party guests. I certainly won’t be.
When I flipped back through its pages, I noticed that I had taken a pencil to the prose throughout. I had revised Wilczek, subconsciously. I never felt better about my decision to edit his writing so heavily, so long ago. Perhaps the next time we meet at a party, the next time he regales me about quantum mechanics, Wilczek will be wearing his Vendetta shirt again.
Joshua Roebke is a writer and a historian of science. His first book, a social and cultural history of particle physics, is forthcoming.
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