CrackpotteryRobert laughlins physics

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.”

Emergence 7752164It 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.”

Is science to sacrifice accuracy for accessibility? And if accuracy demands mathematics – and hence inaccessibility – are we to abandon both? No wonder A Different Universe is so full of contradictions and inaccurate statements! Laughlin’s role model seems to be Aristotle rather than Archimedes and Galileo. Richard Feynman, the noted American physicist and a Nobel laureate who was well known for his ability to explain many of the intricate physical concepts to the layperson, once said “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.”

It is not the fault of science that our intellectual life has not kept up with it. It is the fault of our educational establishments and policies, which have practically eliminated rigorous science and mathematics from the curricula of the majority of schools.

Nature itself has demanded more and more sophisticated mathematics from physicists. The work of Galileo is accessible to whoever is interested in reading it and has a basic knowledge of geometry and algebra. Newton found it necessary to use – and discover – calculus in his study of motion, and his work is inaccessible to those who don’t know calculus. We cannot blame Newton for this inaccessibility; he had no choice but to employ calculus in mechanics.

Reductionist at Heart

Laughlin is an emergentist, and emergence is the antipode of scientific methodology, reductionism. While earlier he stated that the laws of nature that we care about emerge through collective self-organization, now he generalizes this to all laws: “I am increasingly persuaded that all physical law we know about has collective origin, not just some of it. In other words, the distinction between the fundamental laws and the laws descending from them is a myth, as is the idea of mastery of the universe through mathematics alone. Physical laws cannot generally be anticipated by pure thought, but must be discovered experimentally, because control of nature is achieved only when nature allows this through a principle of organization.” So, it was not completely out of place for me to put electrons and nuclei at a board meeting to legislate quantum physics!

No scientist would argue about the importance of experiments in the construction of physical theories. No scientist, not even the most theoretical of theorists, would claim that physical laws can ever – not just “generally” – be anticipated entirely by pure thought. However, scientists would disagree with the use of the word “mastery,” because their desire to discover the unknown is different from Hollywood’s fictional mad scientist, who seeks power and dominion. Scientists take a childlike pleasure in finding a piece of the nature’s puzzle, and only this pleasure drives them to science.

Laughlin calls his radicalism a thesis on the “end of reductionism.” But immediately turns around and says “but that could not be accurate. All physicists are reductionists at heart, myself included. … The radicality is, of course, partly a stage prop, for science, as an experimental undertaking, cannot be radical or conservative but only faithful to the facts. But these larger conceptual issues … are not science at all but philosophy.”

This disclaimer is not unlike that of a radical Moslem cleric who preaches violence, jihad, and suicide bombing but at the same time claims to be “philosophically” peace-loving and tolerant at heart, and his fatwa on jihad and suicide bombing is just a stage prop! If Laughlin is honestly a reductionist at heart, and his radicalism is “a stage prop,” then every time he makes a radical statement, he should remind his reader that “this is just a stage prop;” that it is just a “philosophical” statement; that he is a reductionist at heart. But he never does it in the rest of his book, leaving his reader to rightly assume that he really means what he says!

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