A Nobel Laureate Turned Loose on Physics I: Principles of Disorganization

Robert Laughlin, a physics Nobel Laureate, published a book in 2005 entitled A Different Universe. It has the subtitle, Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down, and is praised on the back cover by a chemistry Nobel Laureate, Roald Hoffman: “By turns funny, acerbic, and touching, Robert Laughlin’s wonderful book gives us a theory of everything — a theory that is plausible and human, and oh so different from arrogant reductionism.” The book also received a laudatory review by another physics Nobel Laureate, Philip Anderson, in the reputable scientific journal Nature.

EmergenceThe idea of reinventing physics is usually the prerogative of self-publishing authors whose most advanced background in physics comes from Reader’s Digest or the Discovery Channel. Even the giants among physicists in history never claim to have “reinvented” physics. They are aware that new knowledge is firmly tied to the old one; that progress cannot be the task of one physicist or even one generation of physicists; that nature isĀ  a vast ocean, and if they have been able to see a little farther, it is because they were “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Coming from a winner of the prestigious Nobel Prize, the message of “reinventing physics” sends a shockwave through the community of learners and truth seekers that can only impair the image of science and the effort of countless educators who are struggling to increase the scientific awareness of the public.

A Different Universe is about emergence, a vague and confusing term used sometimes as a philosophical trend and sometimes as a methodology of science. But the vagueness and confusion pale compared to what Laughlin, the radical anarchist of the discipline, has turned it into. In its most bizarre interpretation, he brings emergence head-to-head with physics as no other pseudoscientific or anti-scientific idea has done before.

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