A Nobel Laureate Turned Loose on Physics II: Legislating the Quantum Theory

A few years before his book came out, Laughlin had a conversation with his father-in-law on the subject of the collective nature of physical law. Laughlin argued that “The laws of nature that we care about … emerge through collective self-organization and really do not require knowledge of their component parts to be comprehended and exploited.” After listening carefully, his father-in-law decided that he did not understand. He had always thought that laws cause organization, not the other way around. He was not even sure the reverse made sense. Laughlin then asked his father-in-law “whether legislature and corporate boards made laws or were made by laws, and he immediately saw the problem.”

EmergenceIt is not clear which laws Laughlin wants us to “care about.” However, it is clear that physicists care about all laws of nature: from the laws of motion and gravity to the laws governing electromagnetism, subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, proteins, and DNA. All laws are important because each has its own domain of validity and application, and can be “comprehended and exploited” in that domain.

But the lack of clarity is dwarfed by what Laughlin seems to be saying in the rest of the quote: Did the law of gravity “emerge through collective self-organization” of the solar system, and before this self-organization the law did not exist? That we don’t need any knowledge of its parts, like the sun itself and planets and moons to comprehend gravity? That the atoms and molecules of the Orion nebula, the famous star nursery, are not pulled together via gravity to form a star until after the “emergence” of the star? That quantum mechanics emerges through collective self-organization of electrons and nuclei, and we don’t need the knowledge of atomic parts to comprehend quantum theory? One can only sympathize with his father-in-law for being confused. Laughlin talks in koans like Zen Buddhists. Let’s take a chance and assume that Laughlin intends to apply what he says in the last sentence of the quote above to natural laws as well.

It leads to the ludicrous notion of the sun and its planets arranging a metaphorical board meeting and legislating the theory of gravity! Or of electrons and nuclei calling a conference in which to legislate the quantum theory!

The quantum theory, and all other physical theories are discovered through the usual scientific process of observation, induction, and deduction. These theories, by their very nature and by the force of nature itself, are mathematical. But Laughlin abhors mathematics: “It is a terrible thing that science has grown so distant from the rest of our intellectual life, for it did not start out that way. The writings of Aristotle, for example, despite their notorious inaccuracies, are beautifully clear, purposeful, and accessible. … The opacity of modern science is an unfortunate side effect of professionalism, and something for which we scientists are often pilloried – and deservedly so.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *