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No More Sleepless Nights for Wilczek

By Jeffrey Chang


The 2004 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to MIT Professor Frank Wilczek this past Tuesday for his work in quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. Co-recipients of this year’s prize were David J. Gross of the University of California at Santa Barbara and H. David Politzer of the California Institute of Technology.

Wilczek and his colleagues won the prize for their discovery of a phenomenon known as “asymptotic freedom,” where the strong force between quarks increases, rather than decreases, with distance. The work that led to the theory of QCD was done by the three laureates in 1973, when Wilczek was a 21-year old graduate student with Gross as his thesis advisor at Princeton, and Politzer was a graduate student at Harvard University.

When asked about how the prize would affect him, he said that “within the physics world, people already knew about this work... outside of physics, in the public eye, this is more like a badge of certification.” As for his future plans, Wilczek said he wants to “get to a quiet place for awhile and try to think,” especially about the opportunities he now has.

Wilczek, others had restless night

Wilczek said he was not surprised that he was awarded the prize, but rather was relieved. “I’ve never been confidently expecting the prize ... but I’ve thought of it as a strong possibility for about twenty years now,” Wilczek said, adding that he would no longer have to endure the “sleepless nights and a bad week” he experienced when the Nobels were awarded every year.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Wilczek told the anecdote of how he had been “waiting in bed sleeplessly” until about 5:00 a.m. in the morning when he decided to shower. The call from the Swedish Academy came at 5:12 a.m., and he took the phone “dripping wet and naked.”

Wilczek wasn’t the only one who was restless. Marc A. Kastner, head of the MIT physics department, said that he woke up at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, knowing that the announcement would happen soon. “I couldn’t go back to sleep,” Kastner said, “so I went to the Nobel Prize Web site. At 5:44, I started pressing the ‘Refresh’ button on my browser... then I saw it and went nuts.”

Faculty, students excited

Other members of the faculty heard the news soon enough. Professor Gabriella Sciolla saw the announcement on the MIT physics Web site a few minutes before giving an 8.022 exam. After the students began the test, she wrote the news in big letters across the chalkboard. “Everyone is so excited and glad for [Wilczek] and for MIT,” said Sciolla.

“We think it’s wonderful,” Kastner said. “We have the best physics department in the world and the world recognizes that now.”

The day after the prize was announced, Wilczek spoke at a colloquium in 26-100. The lecture hall was filled for the event, with many students and adults sitting in the aisles or standing at the back of the room. Professor Robert L. Jaffe, who introduced Wilczek, described QCD as a “complete and consistent” theory, one that exhibited maximal symmetry. Wilczek then talked for about an hour on QCD and asymptotic freedom. At one point, to the amusement of the audience, he showed how QCD is a “very beautiful and tight theory” by presenting a summary of it on a single transparency slide.

The colloquium was followed by a reception in the Vannevar Bush room, where many approached the Nobel laureate individually. Wilczek wore a cap with the words “I Won The Nobel Prize” written across the front, which he said was given to him by some of his students.

Award was expected

The whole physics community has expected Wilczek to win the prize for five or six years, said Kastner. “Everyone felt it was overdue,” he said, but “these things often take a long time.” Jaffe agreed, saying it took the Nobel committee an “unusually long time to recognize how tight the theory is and how to award it... This field of QCD has been the most obvious candidate for at least 25 years. I hope they get around to rewarding others” who also worked on QCD, said Jaffe, “but I think they’re pretty much done. Still, it’s important for us to remember the work done by the many other people who were involved.”

Many of Wilczek’s students expressed similar sentiments “Everybody was already waiting for it,” said Karsten Koeneke G, a second-year graduate student in physics. Wilczek “was convinced empirically that it’s not possible to win a Nobel with QCD,” said Serkan Cabi G, one of Wilczek’s graduate students.

Cabi described Wilczek as “insightful, very bright, and very busy, because everybody always wants to talk with him. He always has lots of things on his mind.” Wilczek is quite enjoyable to work with, said Cabi. “He got his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, but [the field of] physics is really lucky to have stolen him.”