• Nobelist in physics Frank Wilczek explored the mysteries of the universe for an audience of 1,200 at Kresge Auditorium on Monday, March 7, during his talk, 'The Universe Is a Strange Place,' the last in the Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lecture Series.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Wilczek sizes up universe

Probes mysteries in Ford lecture

In a talk that focused on his work, the future of physics and his own life since winning the Nobel Prize last fall, Nobel laureate and physics Professor Frank Wilczek gave the seventh and final installment of the Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lecture Series to a capacity crowd gathered in Kresge Auditorium on Monday, March 7.

Wearing a blazer over a black T-shirt purchased at a "head shop in Amsterdam," Wilczek gave his speech, "The Universe Is a Strange Place," to roughly 1,200 people. The lecture was also broadcast live on the Internet.

Wilczek, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics with David J. Gross and H. David Politzer "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction," spoke for about 90 minutes, focusing the first hour of his lecture on what we do and do not understand about our universe.

"The picture modern physics provides is strange in many ways," said Wilczek, who spent the first part of his hour discussing the 5 percent of the universe we do understand the matter comprising our bodies and other "ordinary matter" like stars and galaxies. 

The other 95 percent of the universe is a mystery, composed of 25 percent mystical "dark matter," which is only understood through its gravitational pull on ordinary matter, and 70 percent "dark energy," which exerts negative pressure.

Wilczek presented two questions: "What is the dark stuff?" and "How do you think about such a question?" The rest of his talk focused on the quest to understand these mysteries, a task Wilczek believes might be accomplished by "demanding more beautiful equations."

With so much left to understand, Wilczek looks forward to the continued creativity and hard work of his fellow researchers. "The world is very strange and very beautiful. We should admire it and be happy to live in it."

Following the talk, a question and answer session focused largely on Wilczek's personal experience winning the Nobel. 

Wilczek told the audience that he was immediately aware of the significance of the 1972 find he and his colleagues made while still graduate students at Princeton University. "I didn't have complete confidence that it was correct, but I did understand that if it was correct, it would be very important." 

The more than 30 years he waited to have the work recognized was at times frustrating, he said. "I was very unhappy not to have this marvelous work recognized for so long."

However, since winning the prize, it's been a whirlwind, he said. Wilczek shared a quick-time video of the Nobel Prize banquet he attended in Stockholm, Sweden, last December, a grand-scale affair attended by every member of the Swedish royal family "down to third cousins," joked Wilcek.

For MIT's newest Nobel laureate, the title is going to take time to sink in. "I haven't really absorbed it yet," he said. "I haven't reached a steady state…but it is a lot of fun."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 9, 2005 (download PDF).

Topics: Physics, Faculty, Nobel Prizes, Special events and guest speakers

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