[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and The Daily Princetonian; see Sources below for details.]
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2004 was awarded jointly to David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction."
The atomic nucleus is held together by a powerful, strong interaction that binds together the protons and neutrons that comprise the nucleus. The strong interaction also holds together the quarks that make up protons and neutrons. This interaction is so strong that no free quarks have ever been observed. However, in 1973 Frank Wilczek, David Gross, and David Politzer came up with a theory postulating that when quarks come really close to one another, the attraction abates and they behave like free particles. This is called asymptotic freedom.
Wilczek’s grandparents emigrated from Europe in the aftermath of World War I, as young teenagers; on his father’s side they came from Poland and on his mother’s side from Italy, near Naples. Both his parents were born on Long Island in 1926 and they have lived there ever since. Frank was born on May 15, 1951, and grew up in Glen Oaks, which is in the northeast corner of Queens, barely within the city limits of New York City.
“My parents were children during the time of the Great Depression, and their families struggled to get by. This experience shaped many of their attitudes, and especially their aspirations for me. They put great stock in education, and in the security that technical skill could bring. When I did well in school they were very pleased, and I was encouraged to think about becoming a doctor or an engineer. As I was growing up my father, who worked in electronics, was taking night classes. Our little apartment was full of old radios and early-model televisions, and with the books he was studying. It was the time of the Cold War. Space exploration was a new and exciting prospect, nuclear war a frightening one; both were ever-present in newspapers, TV, and movies. At school, we had regular air raid drills. All this made a big impression on me. I got the idea that there was secret knowledge that, when mastered, would allow Mind to control Matter in seemingly magical ways.”
Wilczek went to public schools in Queens and was fortunate to have excellent teachers. Because the schools were big, they could support specialized and advanced classes. At Martin van Buren High School there was a group of thirty or so who went to many such classes together, and both supported and competed with one another. More than half went on to successful scientific or medical careers.
“I arrived at the University of Chicago with large but amorphous ambitions. I flirted with brain science, but soon decided that the central questions were not ready for mathematical treatment, and that I lacked the patience for laboratory work. I read voraciously in many subjects, but I wound up majoring in mathematics, largely because doing that gave me the most freedom. During my last term at Chicago, I took a course about the use of symmetry and group theory in physics from Peter Freund. He was an extremely enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, and I felt an instinctive resonance with the material.”
Princeton Graduate School
Wilczek went to Princeton University as a graduate student in the math department receiving his degree in and taught from 1971-1984. but kept a close eye on what was going on in physics.
“I became aware that deep ideas involving mathematical symmetry were turning up at the frontiers of physics; specifically, the gauge theory of electroweak interactions, and the scaling symmetry in Wilson’s theory of phase transitions. I started to talk with a young professor named David Gross, and my proper career as a physicist began.
The great event of my early career was to help discover the basic theory of the strong force, QCD. The equations of QCD are based on gauge symmetry principles, and we make progress with them using (approximate) scaling symmetry. It was very gratifying to find that the ideas I admired as a student could be used to get a powerful and accurate theory for an important part of fundamental physics. I continue to apply these ideas in new ways, and I am certain that they have a great future.
An aspect of my later work that is not much reflected in the lecture, has been to use insights and methods from ‘fundamental’ physics to address ‘applied’ questions, and vice versa. I’m not sure that fractional quantum numbers, transmuted quantum statistics, exotic superfluidities, or the gauge theory of swimming at low Reynolds number have really arrived as applied physics (yet?), but I’ve derived a lot of joy from my discoveries in these areas.
To me, the unity of knowledge is a living ideal and goal. I continue, as in my student days, to read voraciously in many subjects, and to think about them. I hope to further expand the horizons of my writing and work in the future.”
Gross and Wilczek, as a young faculty member and graduate student, respectively, formulated their revolutionary theory in the early 1970s while holed up in the third floor of Jadwin Hall, according to members of the department. They worked out their theory with pencil and paper, applying mathematical reasoning to microcosmic quirks observed in nature. Gross and Wilczek’s discovery concerned a subatomic interaction called the “strong force.” The strong force is one of the four basic forces in nature that act on matter and control its movement. While the first force gravity is easily observed, the others are detectable only on the microcosmic level: electromagnetic interaction, weak interaction and strong interaction. These forces dictate the interactions between atoms and their constituent parts, and together make up the mathematical Standard Model that is the base of quantum mechanics.
Until the 1960s, scientists thought atoms were only made up of protons and neutrons, with electromagnetic interaction controlling the movement between them. Then they discovered protons and neutrons are made up of still smaller elements called quarks. But although they could detect quarks, scientists couldn’t isolate them or explain their interactions. What were the forces holding these tiny composites together? The answer. Gross and Wilczek discovered, was a special property now called the “color charge.”
Each of the three quarks in a proton carries a different color charge, which is emitted in a way similar to the positive or negative electric charge of protons and electrons. These color forces between quarks cause them to bind together, forming a “white” charge, in the same way charged atoms bind to make neutrally charged molecules. “It’s a quite subtle theory, and Gross and Wilczek understood it at a fundamental level no one else did,” physics department chair Dan Marlowe said. “It wasn’t just a description it was a theory based on really rigorous mathematics.”
The young professor and his student published their theory in a 1973 edition of the scientific journal Physical Review Letters. Fellow winner Politzer published a subsequent article in the journal describing strong forces in more detail. Expressing pride at Gross and Wilczek’s accomplishment, Marlowe said, “Princeton has a great faculty, especially in the sciences. We already have several Nobel Laureates on staff in the physics department.” Professor emeritus Philip Anderson was one such honoree, winning the award in 1977. Anderson congratulated Gross and Wilczek adding that winning the Nobel Prize was a singular and moving experience. “It was the only time in my life I’ve gotten a real ovation and that’s really amazing if you aren’t used to it,” Anderson said. “Unless you’re a rock star or something.”
Living in Einstein’s house
White with black shutters, handsome but unpretentious. 112 Mercer Street has long been the most famous house in Princeton. It was the home of Albert Einstein for more than 20 years and became the home to a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study. The house had been empty for several years following the death of Margot Einstein. Einstein's stepdaughter willed it to the Institute after Einstein's death in 1955.
“The Institute could have used the gift in several ways,” said Director Marvin Goldberger, “But the one way it could never be used would be as a museum, Einstein expressly forbade this. We could have sold it on the open market, but there was strong resistance against this," said Dr. Goldberger. "We could have refurbished and rented it to people who came as visitors. We could have converted it to office space. Or could have made it available to new faculty."
The Institute chose the last course, offering the house to Professor Frank Wilczek, a world-renowned physicist who had received offers both from the Institute and from Harvard University. Professor Wilczek who took his Ph.D. at Princeton University and subsequently was a member of the Physics Department, had been at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, since 1980 In 1986, he was a Regents Fellow at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He spent last year on leave at Harvard.
"I had a hard time deciding what to do, but I came here at the end," said Professor Wilczek. “The house was one among many factors, but it certainly appealed to me. Ever since my childhood in Queens I have read about Einstein, I'm entranced with the whole idea."
Professor Wilczek, his wife Betsy, and daughters Amity. 14, and Mira, 7, lived in Institute housing while 112 Mercer Street was being renovated and refurbished. They bought the house for an undisclosed sum. Under the terms of the sale, the Institute had first option to buy it back. The house, which was built in the 1830s, was not immune to the house-moving craze which appeared to have gripped Princeton in the last century. Originally on the site of Princeton Theological Seminary's Stuart Hall, on Alexander Street, it was moved to Mercer Street in the 1870s.
"We are not going to throw anything in the house away," said Professor Wilczek. "We plan to keep two or three rooms — the dining room and one or two others — in the old style." With Einstein's affection for children the stuff of legend, it seems fitting that his house became home to a family with two young children.
Following Princeton during the period 1981–88, Wilczek was the Chancellor Robert Huttenback Professor of Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the first permanent member of the National Science Foundation’s Institute for Theoretical Physics. In the fall of 2000, he moved from the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was the J.R. Oppenheimer Professor, to the MIT Department of Physics, where he is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics. Since 2002, he has been an Adjunct Professor in the Centro de Estudios Científicos of Valdivia, Chile. He is the Founding Director of the T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Distinguished Professor at Arizona State University; and Professor at Stockholm University.
Professor Wilczek has been a Sloan Foundation Fellow (1975-77) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (1982-87). He has received UNESCO’s Dirac Medal, the American Physical Society’s Sakurai Prize, the Michelson Prize from Case Western University, and the Lorentz Medal of the Netherlands Academy for his contributions to the development of theoretical physics. In 2004 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, and in 2005 the King Faisal Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Trustee of the University of Chicago. He contributes regularly to Physics Today and to Nature, explaining topics at the frontiers of physics to wider scientific audiences. He received the Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society for these activities. Two of his pieces have been anthologized in Best American Science Writing (2003, 2005). Together with his wife Betsy Devine, he wrote a beautiful book, Longing for the Harmonies (W.W. Norton). In 2022 he won the Templeton Prize.
• Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2004, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 2005. This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate. Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2004. Frank Wilczek – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022