Nautilus

The Charmed Life of Frank Wilczek

Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek’s new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, is both a way of thinking about the abundance that characterizes our exterior and interior worlds, and a kind of alternative to traditional religion, a way of being “born again” through science. I was asked to review it for The New York Times1 because it’s explicitly a book for non-scientists, and in doing research for my novel, Lost and Wanted, I’d gotten into the habit of reading physics for laypeople. Those books, for me, are divided into two types: the kind that presume the intelligence of the reader and push her to grapple as seriously as possible with problems the authors tackle in their theoretical work, and the kind that use abstract and sometimes flowery language to hint at the mysteries of the universe. I usually prefer the first kind, but I can be seduced by the second; what I like about Wilczek’s Fundamentals is that it seems to occupy a middle ground, introducing ideas about the biggest and smallest things in nature with simple but precise language.

In interviewing physicists, I’m always interested in how they work, and also in what kind of personality is suited to this discipline. Wilczek spoke to me over Zoom from his home in Concord, Massachusetts, in a gray room with a steeply sloped ceiling. He was wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt with more than one pen in the pocket, and he was both quick to smile and to qualify a point during our conversation. When he was concentrating on explaining something, he would close his eyes for moments at a time behind his glasses. Our conversation reinforced an impression I took from his book: that he is a profoundly happy person, whose happiness is in large part derived from intellectual endeavors, among which physics is the primary but not the exclusive passion.

I love the quote from Pascal at the beginning of about his existential horror at his own tininess: “the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck.” Can you remember, either as a child or maybe even recently, looking up at the sky and being

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