13 March 2005

'A Different Universe' by Robert Laughlin

A Different Universe is very new book by Stanford physics professor (and Nobel winner) Robert Laughlin. His thesis is that we are leaving the age of reductionism and entering the age of emergence. By this he means that we may well have learned one set of fundamental laws of how matter works, but there are many limits to what we can do with these laws in terms of predicting higher-level collective phenomenon.

The book is written for the layman (ie. no equations!), and I still found some of the detail hard to understand, but the main point comes across. One example of what he’s describing is the behavior of elements as they go through phase transitions (while we’re used to thinking of gas, liquid, solid, there are apparently many other states at extreme temperatures). These phases exhibit certain properties which are consistent with the fundamental laws, yet have new behaviors that no one could predict from those laws. Only though experimental measurement have we found out about these states.  So the physical laws do not determine (and thus predict) all the outcomes, they are more like constraints.

I find myself in agreement with his thesis; I too believe there is much more that we can discover about how the universe works. The book is entertaining but perhaps a bit light once getting the main concept across.