Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


Frank Wilczek: The Beautiful Mind

Frank Wilczek

2004 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction"

  • The hypothesis of designing an AI able to “think” seems inevitable to occur at some point
    • Humans are proof that the complexity of the mind is an emergent property of matter
  • The real question is not whether computers can beat humans at chess
    • Will they ever be able to create the game of chess?
      • Dr. Wilczek thinks that it will be possible to design “creative” computers and there already hints of that
  • Dr. Wilczek describes his personal operating system as “Think, Play, Repeat”
  • What allowed Dr. Wilczek to Be So Prolific
    • He loves learning new things, so what he does, doesn’t feel like “work”
    • He allows himself to follow his curiosity and learn about other fields as an amateur
      • When he finds intersections between his work and his other interests he is able to dive deeper and draw connections
  • No amount of thinking about what is can lead to a logical inference about what ought to be, or how we ought to behave” Dr. Wilczek
    • Science can’t help us decide what’s good and what’s bad
    • For a long time, people have thought about these issues and their wisdom is often contained in religions
  • Frank Wilczek (@FrankWilczek) is a theoretical physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and an author. His latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality was released in January 2021
  • Host: Dr. Brian Keating (@DrBrianKeating)
  • In this conversation, Dr. Wilczek shares his thoughts on Artificial Intelligence, Religion, the possibility of a Theory of Everything, and much more
  • The hypothesis of designing an AI able to “think” seems inevitable to occur at some point
  • Mind emerges from matter
  • We already learned to “make” minds
    • Designing computers that can do things that were once thought to be unique to humans
  • The real question is not whether computers can beat humans at chess
    • Will they ever be able to create the game of chess?
      • That would be beyond artificial intelligence, it would be artificial wisdom
  • Dr. Wilczek thinks that it will be possible to design “creative” computers and there already are hints of that
    • In reinforcement-learning, computers are designed to “explore” possibilities to see what works and then “exploit” them
      • This is currently used to teach computers how to play games and other simple applications
      • We can foresee AI being able to learn about humans tastes and motivations and “explore” creating games that we might like
    • ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com shows how computers can create realistic photographs of humans that don’t exist
      • This is an example of how computers can be creative
  • Dr. Wilczek defines Fundamentals as basic principles that explain a lot but can’t be explained by anything else
    • For example, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics explains a lot about how the world works, but it is not fundamental
      • It can be explained in terms of atomic structure, probability, and the mechanical view of the World
  • The discovery that there are such things as Fundamental Principles is really profound
  • “The comprehensibility of the world is a miracle” Albert Einstein
  • There are three factors that Dr. Wilczek considers when deciding what to work on
    • Importance
      • Problems can be important if they are “Fundamental” or if solving them is useful
    • Addressability
      • His ability to do something about the problem
    • Irritability
      • If he perceives flaws or gaps that irritate him in our understanding of the World, he wants to address it
  • He also tries to incorporate playfulness in his work and in the choice of his projects
    • He describes his personal operating system as “Think, Play, Repeat”
  • Dr. Wilczek loves learning new things, so what he does, doesn’t feel like “work”
  • He was fortunate to come across some great minds during his career such as Bertrand Russell
  • He also allows himself to follow his curiosity and learn about other fields as an amateur
    • For many years he has been learning about Machine Learning, Cosmology, and the areas of Physics outside of his expertise
    • When he finds intersections between his work and his other interests he is able to dive deeper and draw connections
  • Formulas for axions (hypothetical elementary particles) display a broken symmetry that can be seen as more beautiful than perfect symmetry
    • Axion’s symmetry is broken in a very particular way
  • This can be seen as Nature giving us an opportunity to expand our concept of symmetry
    • Broken symmetry is not the absence of symmetry
      • You can have spontaneously broken symmetry, proximate symmetry, asymptotic symmetry, and more
  • Nature likes broken symmetry
    • There’s a study that took half of Brad Pitt’s face and copied it symmetrically on the other half
      • Surprisingly he looks better with a less symmetrical face
  • Even in music, having variations on the theme enriches the melody
  • Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory of the strong interaction between quarks and gluons, the fundamental particles that make up composite hadrons such as the proton and the neutron.
  • Color Confinement
    • 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 comprise protons and neutrons.
    • This interaction is so strong that no "free" quarks have ever been observed, meaning we have not been able to experimentally isolate and observe individual quarks.
      • This behavioral property of quarks is referred to as color confinement.
      • Part of the nature of color confinement is that the further you try to force the quarks apart, the greater the force of containment.
    • One way to visualize color confinement is by imagining that the quarks are confined to elastic "bags."
      • We can imagine that the boundaries of the proton serve as the boundary of the elastic bag.
      • A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces "binding" them together.
      • The color charge of individual quarks is arbitrary, but all three colors must be present.
    • To "stretch" the bag and pull the quarks apart means that energy must be added to the system to overcome the strong force between the quarks.
    • The energy that must be added to overcome the strong force far exceeds the amount of energy needed to produce new mesons (quark and anti-quark pairs) and baryons via pair production.
    • Therefore, instead of separating the quarks, we just produce more hadrons, like protons and neutrons.
  • Asymptotic Freedom
    • Based on experiments, as quarks get very close to one another (like when they're inside a baryon), they actually experience a decrease in the force strength.
    • This implies that quarks can move about within a baryon rather freely.
    • Qualitatively, this results from the penetration of the gluon cloud surrounding the quarks.
    • Because the gluons carry color charge, this gluon cloud would reduce the effective color charge of the quark, making the force of interaction between quarks weaker as they move closer.
  • Dr. Wilczek’s personal favorite experiments
    • Seeing “jets” in QCD (quantum chromodynamics)
    • The anyon discovery
  • According to Dr. Wilczek, the most beautiful experiment that emerged from 20th-century physics is the Josephson effect
  • Dr. Wilczek doesn’t subscribe to any religion
  • But he doesn’t see them in a negative way
    • Religion is part of our cultural heritage and part of who we are and it contains many beautiful ideas
    • Getting rid of religion would be like cutting off an arm
  • There are things about how to be and make sense in the World that science doesn’t answer
  • “No amount of thinking about what is can lead to a logical inference about what ought to be, or how we ought to behave” Dr. Wilczek
    • Science can’t help us decide what’s good and what’s bad
    • For a long time, people have thought about these issues and their wisdom is often contained in religions
  • Taking religion seriously also helps us to better relate to people coming from those traditions
  • Dr. Wilczek’s approach is to “understand God through God’s work”
  • We don’t have any evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life
  • But Dr. Wilczek thinks that there is a high probability of its existence
    • He also doesn’t see the fact that we haven’t seen it as a paradox because of distances and difficulties to communicate
  • It did not take very long for life to emerge once the conditions on Earth became stable
    • The chemistry to get life started is complicated, but not overly so
    • He thinks it’s likely that life would emerge in the many billions of planets in our galaxy and other galaxies
  • The much more difficult step is to move from single cells to multi-cellular organisms
    • It took billions of years on Earth for this to happen
    • Conditions on Earth were seemingly perfect
  • Moving from multi-cellular organisms to Intelligence as we know it might be even more difficult
    • “Extraterrestrial intelligence and extraterrestrial technology might be rare, even though extraterrestrial life is common” Dr. Wilczek
  • The idea of aliens throwing around physical objects to explore the Universe seems very farfetched and inefficient to Dr. Wilczek
    • But he admits that there might be something he doesn’t know that makes him think that
      • “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C. Clarke’s third law
  • Dr. Wilczek dislike the phrase Theory of Everything, he prefers calling it a “Final Theory”
  • A Final Theory would be
    • an account of the fundamental laws of Nature
    • Everywhere we check it, it is confirmed
    • No phenomenon is left out from it
    • Doesn’t seem to be open to change
    • It wouldn’t be a description or explanation of many things that we consider to be part of “everything”
  • We have an approximation to a Final Theory in what Dr. Wilczek calls a Core Theory (or Standard Model)
    • Those laws have many of the characteristics of a Final Theory in the fields of biology, engineering, most of physics (except cosmology)
    • Even if we improved this Core Theory, it could not be a theory of everything

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