Crackpottery

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.

The 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 is  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.

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.

Emergence 9128162The 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 is  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.

The central theme of A Different Universe is the contrast between the “essentials” and “powerful principles of organization.” Laughlin uses the word “essentials” to mean the fundamental constituents of matter, and the phrase “principles of organization” to refer to concepts — not clearly defined or elaborated — collectively treated under emergence. This contrast starts from the very first sentence of the preface: “There are two conflicting primal impulses of the human mind — one to simplify a thing to its essentials, the other to see through the essentials to the greater implications.” The use of the word “primal”  conveys a permanent, universal, and intrinsic characteristic of the human mind. It carries the message that all humans, past and present, when looking at everything, have these conflicting impulses. History, however, tells us otherwise! The oldest “essential” impulse ever recorded is less than three thousand years old. The ancient concept of atoms, the hypothetical particles of which everything was assumed to be made, goes back to the Greece and India of 600-700 BCE. This philosophical atomism was the ingenious invention of the human mind, whose roots could not have gone farther back than 1000 BCE. Even at the peak of its ancient popularity in 300-400 BCE, not every thinker subscribed to it, and most definitely, no ordinary citizen thought or cared about it. The “primal impulse” of essentialism is something that we learn — most of the time reluctantly. The history of modern scientific atomism is a strong testimony to that: as late as 1900 CE, there were quite a few scientists who refused to accept the reality of atoms!

Although “essentials” are meant to be the fundamental constituents of matter, on many occasions Laughlin turns them into completely unrelated entities. As he adorns the “powerful principles of organization” with qualities such as majesty, beauty, and humanness, the “essentials” become the heartless objective description of things. An example of this prejudicial categorization is when Laughlin contrasts the vastness and grandiosity of the sea, presumably identified with his “powerful principles of organization,” with its description as “a hole filled with water,” which is supposedly how scientists portray the sea.

Principles of Disorganization

The mantra of A Different Universe is the “powerful principles of organization,” which are supposedly related to emergence, although the relation is not clearly stated. One of the claimed characteristics of these principles is that

they “are transcendent, in that they would continue to hold even if the essentials were changed slightly.” (p. ix)

The  word “slightly” blurs the meaning of the statement because “slight” is a relative term.  Mount Everest is a slight bump on earth’s surface.  A “slight” chip of a brick is a billion trillion times bigger than an atom! To be able to evaluate its accuracy, let’s make the statement a bit more precise and interpret “slight” as “a small fraction.” Then the next question would be “What is small?” Is ten percent small? Or one percent? Or one hundredth of a percent? The following example looks at a truly minute change in the essentials, with an effect that is as colossal as the universe itself!

Everything is made up of atoms, which themselves are made up of protons and neutrons (the constituents of the atomic nucleus) and electrons. Protons carry as much positive charge as electrons carry negative charge. The atoms of all macroscopic objects under normal conditions are neutral because there are as many protons in the nucleus as there are electrons in the atom. Under some extreme conditions, it is possible to ionize atoms, making them positive by removing some electrons from them. This happens naturally in the core of stars where the temperature reaches several million degrees Celsius. However, even under these extreme conditions, the macroscopic object (the star) is, as a whole, electrically neutral.

The exact cancellation of the charges of a proton and an electron, and thus the exact neutrality of the atom, is crucial in the stability of everything that is held together by the force of gravity. The essentials (electrons and protons) determine the fate of gravity in the most dramatic way. Let us see if “powerful principles of organization” continue to hold if we tweak the balance of positive and negative charges slightly. For the simplicity of the argument assign the number +1 to the charge of a proton, and -1 to that of the electron. They add up to zero, rendering the atom (or more precisely, the macroscopic object) neutral.

Suppose we increased the charge of the “essential” proton by a minute fraction, not to 1.1, or 1.01, or 1.0001, but to 1.000000000000000001, an increase that by any standard is slight. This change makes all atoms slightly positive, and all bodies consisting of these atoms would carry a positive charge, resulting in an electrical repulsion among all objects. Would the “powerful principles of organization” transcend this slight change? Not by any stretch of imagination! This change is sufficient for the repulsive electric force to completely annihilate the gravitational attraction between any two entities in the universe! The earth would not be able to keep the moon in its orbit; the sun would not be able to hold on to its planets; and the Milky Way would lose all its stars. In fact, the effect is much more severe.  Since the constituents of a star or a planet are held together by the attractive force of gravity,

the electric repulsion would burst asunder all stars and planets, and the ultimate supreme organization, the universe itself, turns into a dust of atoms, all avoiding each other and refusing to “organize.”

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