Q&A: Talking God, science and religion with theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

In 1978 he predicted a new type of particle called an axion. Although yet to be detected, axions are among the leading explanations for dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up most of the matter in the known universe, even though they are billions of times lighter than the electron.

More recently he introduced the idea of time crystals — a phase of matter that can sustain constant change without burning any energy — and anyons, particles that have a strange behavior when their positions are exchanged but can exist only in two-dimensional space.

"Really, in my opinion, these are all Nobel Prize-winning inventions," said his friend and colleague Antti Niemi, professor of theoretical physics at Uppsala University in Stockholm. "He is one of the few, I would say, that could easily get a second Nobel Prize."

In addition to groundbreaking discoveries, Wilczek's work has also led him to some of the same conclusions shared by mystics from all religions: the myth of separateness and the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

As he wrote in "Fundamentals," "Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain — the physical platform of our 'self' — is, against all intuition, built from the same stuff as 'not-self,' and appears to be continuous with it."

Other spiritual insights from his decades of scientific study include the idea of complementarity — that different ways of viewing the same thing can be informative, and valid, yet difficult or impossible to maintain at the same time, and that science teaches us both humility and self-respect.


"Within ourselves we have enormous resources," he told an online audience last year. "We are small compared to the universe, but we are large compared to what it takes to have dynamic patterns and process them in time. Walt Whitman was right when he said he contains multitudes."

Wilczek's friends and students describe him as a kind and generous scientist who never lost his childlike wonder at the immense beauty of the world and how it all works.

"There's a distinction between curiosity and wonder," said Jordan Cotler, who studies theoretical physics at Harvard and who started working with Wilczek as a college undergraduate. "Curiosity is an intellectual outlook, but wonder suggests there is something in your soul that compels you to know more about the world. That's something he embodies in a real, genuine way."

Here Wilczek tells us more about his thoughts on religion, God, and how science has informed his perspective on life.


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