A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

By Robert B. Laughlin


The following is excerpted from A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down  by Robert B. Laughlin (New York: Basic Books, 2005)

Laughlin Book

Much as I dislike the idea of ages, I think a good case can be made that science has now moved from an Age of Reductionism to an Age of Emergence, a time when the search for ultimate causes of things shifts from the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective. It is difficult to identify a specific moment when this transition occurred because it was gradual and somewhat obscured by the pretense of myths, but there can be no doubt that the dominant paradigm now is organizational. That is why, for example, electrical engineering students are no longer required to learn the laws of electricity –which are very elegant and enlightening but irrelevant to programming computers. It is why stem cells are in the news but enzymatic functionalities are confined to the fine print on boxes of soap. It is why movies about Marie Curie and Lord Rutherford are out while Jurassic Park and Twister are in. The protagonists in these newer movies are not concerned with the microscopic causes but with capricious organizational phenomena – as in, “Arrrggghhh! It’s coming right for us!”

Ironically, the very success of reductionism has helped pave the way for its eclipse. Over time, careful quantitative study of microscopic parts has revealed that at the primitive level at least, collective principles of organization are not just a quaint side show but everything – the true source of physical law, including perhaps the most fundamental laws we know. The precision of our measurements enables us to confidently declare the search for a single ultimate truth to have ended – but at the same time to have failed, since nature is now revealed to be an enormous tower of truths, each descending from its parent, and then transcending that parent, as the scale of measurement increases. Like Columbus or Marco Polo, we set out to explore a new country but instead discovered a new world.

The Transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case. We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them. Their inability to do so is similar to the difficulty the Wizard of Oz has in returning Dorothy to Kansas. He can do it in principle, but there are a few pesky details to be worked out. One must be satisfied in the interim with empty testimonials and exhortations to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The real problem is that Oz is a different universe from Kansas and that getting from one to the other makes no sense. The myth of collective behavior following law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it, such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.

Robert B. Laughlin is the Robert M. and Anne Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1985. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect.