撰文 | Frank Wilczek
翻译 | 胡风、梁丁当
编辑 | 苏苗苗
有时候，等待可能更加漫长，甚至没有尽头。1931年，量子力学的奠基人之一保罗 · 狄拉克（Paul Dirac）预言了一种携带磁荷的粒子。他称之为磁单极子，即只有北极（或南极）的小磁铁。
1981年，在参加一个纪念“磁单极子50周年”的暑期学校时，我和妻子贝茜 · 迪瓦恩（Betsy Devine）常常同狄拉克和他的妻子玛吉特（Margit）一起吃早餐。保罗是出了名的沉默寡言。玛吉特告诉我们，保罗对这次会议极其失望。他原本是期望听到有关磁单极子被发现的报告的，但是相关的实验遭到了严厉的批评，而其实验结果自然也被认为不具有可信度。玛吉特对此感到很担心，因为她觉得“支撑保罗活下去”的正是他对磁单极子能够被发现的念想。
阿尔贝 · 加缪（Albert Camus）曾写道 ：“期待是一种甜蜜的痛苦，我们需要它来感受自己还活着。”在科学中，我们预测如何在自然界中实现我们的想法，随后取得进步。这个过程可能是缓慢的，痛苦的，甚至是悲剧性的。然而，面对挑战迎面而上是一种重要的思想方式。它常常给我们带来创造的惊喜，也会在更为稀有的时刻，为我们带来被自然界“认可”的荣光。
Physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84) predicted the existence of magnetic monopoles, which have yet to be observed.
Some physicists have waited a whole lifetime forreality to meet their expectations.
In recent months, two gorgeous experiments have reported convincing evidence for the existence of anyons, a new type of particle that can exist only inside of certain materials. Their distinctive feature is that they have a kind of primitive memory, enabling them to preserve information about their past motions. This feature makes anyons an important building block for future quantum computers.
For many years, most physicists thought that all particles must be either bosons (a category that includes photons, the particles of light) or fermions (which includes protons and neutrons, located in an atom’s nucleus). But in the early 1980s, building on work by earlier researchers, I proposed the existence of a new type of particle, which I named anyons as a kind of joke, derived from “anything goes.”
At the time, I expected the existence of anyons to be confirmed by observation within a few months—rather short of the four decades it actually took. In science, reality can be slow to meet our expectations.
Sometimes the wait takes even longer, or never ends at all. In 1931, Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, predicted the existence of particles that carry magnetic charge, which he called magnetic monopoles. In essence, they are tiny magnets with only a north pole.
Dirac was one of the greatest physicists of all time—among other things, he introduced the concept of antimatter. Using new mathematical ideas, he showed that magnetic monopoles are consistent with the principles of quantum mechanics, despite some serious appearances to the contrary. Better yet, he showed that their existence would explain the profound but otherwise deeply mysterious fact that protons and electrons have equal and opposite electric charges that cancel each other out precisely.
In 1981, at a summer school dedicated to “50 Years of Magnetic Monopoles,” my wife Betsy Devine and I frequently shared breakfast with Dirac and his wife Margit. Paul was notoriously taciturn, but Margit told us that he was very disappointed by the conference. He had hoped to hear confirmation of a reported discovery of magnetic monopoles, but instead the experiment was heavily criticized and its results were discounted. Margit was concerned because she felt that his hope for the discovery of monopoles “was keeping Paul alive.”
After the summer school, Dirac wrote his last words on the subject, in a letter: “I am inclined now to believe that monopoles do not exist.” He died in 1984.
To this day, despite vigorous searches of many kinds, genuine magnetic monopoles have never been observed. Yet the new concepts Dirac introduced in connection with monopoles have been enormously influential. There are very good reasons to think that monopoles really do exist, but that they are much too heavy to be produced in particle accelerators or even in cosmic rays.
Albert Camus wrote that “we need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” In science, we make progress by anticipating how our ideas might be realized in nature. The process can be slow, painful and ultimately tragic. Yet rising to its challenge is an important discipline of thought, often leading to creative surprises—and more rarely, but wonderfully, to Nature’s “Yes.”