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Wilczek, Guth Win Awards For Physics Achievements

By Beckett W. Sterner

Professors of Physics Frank Wilczek and Alan Guth ’68 recently won awards marking them as leaders in theoretical physics. Wilczek won the Lorentz Medal for his work in particle physics, and Guth won the Dirac Medal for his research into the expansion of the early universe.

The Lorentz Medal in physics is awarded every four years by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The prize has a prestigious history with past winners including Max Planck and Wolfgang Pauli, both of whom later won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The award is in honor of Hendrik Antoon Lorentz who won the Nobel Prize in 1902 along with Pieter Zeeman.

Also in the field of physics, the Dirac Medal, named after the physicist Paul Dirac, is awarded each year on Aug. 8. This year the award is shared by three people: Professor Guth, Andre Linde at Stanford University, and Paul Steinhardt at Princeton University.

Wilczek wins for particle research

Wilczek has been the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT since 2000, before which he worked at both Princeton and Harvard Universities.

Notification of the award is sent by mail to the winners, so the letter “sat on my desk” for a while, Wilczek said, “since I was away for the summer. My secretary didn’t think it was important.”

The statement from the Royal Netherlands Academy cites Wilczek’s pioneering work in quantum chromodynamics (QCD) and study in two-dimensional gases in semiconductors as Wilczek’s most important research. QCD concerns the dynamics of the strong nuclear force, and Wilczek’s work in specific developed the idea of “asymptotic freedom,” where the attractive force between nearby quarks begins at zero and increases rapidly as they move farther apart.

He used this idea to explore circumstances at high temperatures or densities where one might actually detect individual quarks not in a nucleus. One application at high densities is the behavior of matter within massive neutron stars, once again putting particle physics in exotic places.

Echoing the Academy, Director of the Center for Theoretical Physics and Wilczek’s colleague Robert L. Jaffe said that Wilczek has “contributed to an astounding range of fields including semiconductors and superconductors, [but] as an outsider [to QCD], I would describe his explanation of asymptotic freedom as his most important idea.”

This year is a special one for the Lorentz Medal as it marks the hundredth anniversary of Lorentz winning the Nobel prize. Thus, when Professor Wilczek goes to Holland on Oct. 11, the Academy will hold a special symposium in Lorentz’s honor. As part of the event, Wilczek will give a talk entitled ‘Evolution of the concept of particle and the origin of mass.’

Guth studies expansion of universe

On Aug. 8, Professor Alan Guth joined the growing set of MIT faculty who have received the Dirac Medal for work in theoretical physics. Along with two other scientists, he received the award for his work on the idea of inflation in the very early universe, an idea that, while still speculative, has recently found a growing amount of experimental evidence in its favor.

Guth, along with Linde and Steinhardt, pioneered the concept of an inflationary force pushing the universe apart after the very first instant of time. “The biggest weakness [with the prior model,]” Guth said, “is that it doesn’t explain how things started.”

Inflation, on the other hand, posits a very small but extremely dense bit of matter that entered a rare state that caused its gravitational field to be reversed. In essence, instead of gravity pulling objects together, this bit of matter pushed outward and created inflation.

One of the recent achievements of the theory is explaining newly measured fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation, currently the best window onto the nature of the big bang. Timken University Professor of astrophysics at Harvard Irwin I. Shapiro comments that inflation “has to be considered speculative, but it’s a brilliant innovation that has spawned generations of cosmologists working on [its] assumptions.”

Five winners of the Dirac Medal, including Guth, are currently faculty at MIT. Past winners are Professors of Physics Frank Wilczek, Roman W. Jackiw, Jeffrey Goldstone and Jerome I. Friedman. Friedman also received the Nobel in 1990.

Although no official date is set for the award ceremony, the three are currently thinking of traveling to Trieste, Italy in April 2003 to receive the medals.