Templeton Prize-winning physicist pushes back against anti-intellectualism

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Washington (AFP) – Frank Wilczek, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist whose research has transformed humanity’s understanding of the fundamental forces of nature, was announced on Wednesday as the winner of the prestigious 2022 Templeton Prize.

The 70-year-old told AFP he saw the award as a testament to the inspiring power of science, at a time when scientists themselves are increasingly criticized by anti-intellectual elements of the society.

“In the United States, where I live, it’s been in our face for the past few years, and a whole political party is dedicated to it. It’s very unfortunate,” the MIT professor said.

“These people say, ‘Oh, I can find my own information on the Internet.’ There would be no internet without understanding quantum mechanics and science, and all the hard work engineers have put into it!”

Such designers and builders of complex systems, Wilczek said, “should get some credibility out of this: they build bridges that usually don’t fall and vaccines that work.”

But he acknowledged that some alienation was due to the “perceived arrogance” of some members of the scientific community, who he said must earn their credibility through patience, tolerance and honesty.

Valued at over $1.3 million, the Templeton Prize is one of the world’s largest annual individual prizes, honoring those who explore the deepest questions of the universe and humanity’s place in it. her bosom.

Past winners include Mother Teresa and Jane Goodall.

“Throughout Dr. Wilczek’s philosophical musings, there is a spiritual quality to his insights,” Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said in a statement.

“In discovering a remarkable order in the natural world, Dr. Wilczek came to appreciate different ways of thinking about reality, and through his written work he invited all of us to join him in the quest for understanding.”

Demystifying dark matter

Wilczek’s achievements in physics include an explanation of one of the four fundamental forces of nature: the so-called “strong interaction” between elementary particles called quarks – for which he and two others won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics .

He also offered a main explanation for dark matter, which is thought to constitute 80% of the matter in the universe, although its nature is not yet known.

More than four decades ago, Wilczek suggested that a type of subatomic particle called an “axion” was responsible for the mysterious matter – but it’s only recently that experiments have come closer to confirming their existence, thanks to advances in technology.

If these experiments are successful, “we would make our understanding of fundamental laws considerably more beautiful. And it would also confirm that the universe is comprehensible,” he said.

In 2020, French scientists confirmed the existence of another particle that Wilczek named in the 1980s: the “anyon”, which can maintain a form of memory of their interactions with each other.

Microsoft is investing in this curiosity of theoretical physics to develop the next generation of quantum computing, which Wilczek believes could revolutionize this nascent field.

“Without disparaging the existing platform (of quantum computing), it’s like having vacuum tubes and then transistors,” he said, recalling the technological leap responsible for today’s computer chips. .

Beyond his research, Wilczek is known for his public engagement through his popular lectures and books, including “A Beautiful Question” and “The Lightness of Being,” as well as columns for the Wall Street Journal.

Bridging the gap between science and the public is vital, he said, “especially for scientists doing curiosity-driven research that doesn’t have obvious applications.”

“What they produce is a cultural product, and it should be integrated into the culture.”

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