Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on Robert B. Laughlin:
A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

(NY: Basic Books, 2005, 221 pp.)

      With one adamant exception, most of the members of our group had a low opinion of this book. The general feeling is that the book is hard to understand and poorly written and that the author comes across as rather arrogant. The group's average rating (on a scale of 0 to 10) was just 3.9. Rosie wrote the following appraisal:

This author bored me to death. I didn’t like his writing style at all. After about the fifth chapter I gave up. Frequently I wasn’t sure what he was saying. More often, he kept telling me what he was going to prove, but never did so—just kept previewing and previewing and previewing........ His flippancy and arrogance also greatly annoyed me. He downed all sorts of science and scientists, and again me... never gave any good reasons why......just downed them. His distinct lack of organization and articulation were terribly disappointing. I had really expected to enjoy this book.

What’s ironic is far as I could make out what he was advocating....I agreed with a lot of it. I agree that emergence is the key area we should be looking at. I believe that the whole is something more than the sum of its parts. I agree that one can go too far in examining the minute parts of something and lose sight of the forest.

I disagree with his intense hostility and aversion to string theory and string theorists. Someone gets to do the theoretical side of physics. Theory and experiment are both important....and it would be nice if the theorists and experimenters talked to each other and worked together. (Why can’t they just all get along???)

One more irony: I had tossed the book aside...had no intention of finishing it. But there it was sitting on my sidetable. A couple of weeks later, during a TV commercial, I picked it up and thought “I’ll just look at his last chapter....they all change gears in the last chapter...and often reveal interesting religious and political biases that have little to do with their area of ‘expertise’”.

Upshot..... I thought the last chapter was really entertaining!!! Nothing proven again, but laugh-out-loud entertaining.

I started going backward more. The second to last chapter , “Picnic Table in the Sun, was delightful—indeed the modern version of the stoa!!!

On to the third to the last chapter, “Star Warriors”........I thought: Here he goes again with the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.......actually he seems to think that both “sides” are wrong and only a few “rebels” like him do any worthwhile work. However ..... the HIDDEN BLOODY ROAST story at the end of the chapter was GREAT!!

Chapter previous to that (chapter 13 I think). Getting very annoyed again. Gave up on the book.

CONCLUSION: I boosted my rating from a 2 to a 4 just 'cause I enjoyed three chapters so much.

      Many people agreed with the thrust of Rosie's criticisms. Kirby thought the book is "crappily written" and that "many paragraphs seem like gobbledygook, especially in the first couple chapters." He added that Laughlin should have explained emergence much better.

      Kevin S. agreed with both Rosie and Kirby. He said the book confused him and that it seemed like different chapters had no unifying theme. He also said that the book is poorly written, and that he didn't read it all. Barbara said she read it cover to cover, but thought that the book was not clear, contradicts itself, and was not well-written. She viewed the book in terms of "old laws" versus "new laws" and wondered if there would be better organizational laws of nature in the future.

      Ron said the book was frustrating, and the stories inserted didn't seem to apply to the physics examples. Rich also thought the book is poorly written, and he said he felt as if he could have written Rosie's summation himself. He thought Laughlin's arrogance came out throughout his book and that he was talking way over his audience's head.

      Scott, however, had a much more positive take on the book than the rest of the group. Here are his summation notes:

Notes on: A Different Universe: Reinventing
Physics from the Bottom Down
, by Robert B. Laughlin

I have complex feelings about the book. Both positive and negative; sometimes a bit of each at the same time.

The book gives the impression of being a series of conversations. As in most “serious” conversations there are profound moments, light moments, humorous moments, irrelevant moments, all mixed up together. This could be considered a virtue, or a defect, depending on your point of view. I lean toward the negative on this, but I understand that it is perhaps wise in a book intended for a wide audience.

The references to many specific principles in solid-state physics in the book are too hard. At least for me! The references often seem to be at a level appropriate for university physics students, and sometimes maybe only for grad students. Laughlin admits that he is sometimes way too demanding of his students. When it comes to solid-state physics he seems to me to also be way too demanding of his readers. I wish he would have more patiently and thoroughly explained many of the concepts he refers to so I could have grasped more of what he was talking about.

Some of the physics, and especially chapter 9, however, is fascinating. I especially loved the explanation of the “phonon”, or particle of sound, and its presentation as a type of quantum mechanics! This chapter really made me wish that I had the time and youthful mental capability necessary to seriously study physics.

The comments throughout the book about how the “vacuum of space” is actually a form of “matter” were also fascinating. I felt that a bit more discussion of the differences between the modern concept of space as part of the world, and the old concept of “ether” would have been appropriate, however.

His emphasis on phase states of matter is useful and significant. I think he demonstrated that point.

The anti-reductionist viewpoint is welcome. Moreover, I thought it was nuanced and balanced. He didn’t go so far as to deny the value of reductionism totally. He merely argued that the present one-sided obsession with reductionism is unjustified and counterproductive.

Another central theme—that physics and all of science—is actually a series of emergent, collective laws is grossly underdeveloped! Much more needed to be said about this, both the specifics of particular cases, and the philosophical generalizations. I think he is really on to something here, but much more discussion is needed.

Like (probably) all books so far on “emergence”, he leaves you wanting a lot more. More examples, more explications of what emergence is and why it occurs, etc. There is a bit of a standard discussion of this near the end of the book, but not to the degree there should be.

What, exactly, are these “general principles of organization in nature” that he refers to? (Cf. p. xiv.) He says some are known, but the vast majority aren’t yet. More examples are needed here, and the reasons he has for saying these things. (It’s not that I disagree… I just want to hear some more here.)

There are many fine and profound comments in the book, such as (p. 8): “The tendency of nature to form a hierarchical society of physical laws is … why the world is knowable. It renders the most fundamental laws, whatever they are, irrelevant and protects us from being tyrannized by them. It is the reason we can live without understanding the ultimate secrets of the universe.” It is comments like this that make the book well-worthwhile, despite various shortcomings.

Another of the profound comments is: “Simplicity in physics is an emergent phenomenon.” (p. 130).

Some other things which may well be profound require some rereading and rethinking on my part. Things like what the essence of renormalization is, or this whole business of “protection in physics” (chapter 12). A bit more elucidation would have been welcome here. The essence of his frequently referred-to “Deceitful Turkey” principle is also hard to keep in mind.

I suspect he thinks that “life” is more of a qualitative leap from non-life than it actually is. There seemed to be a hint of mysticism in his generally good comments on this topic.

I agree with many of his biases or pet peeves (though not all of them, of course!). Such things as his slams against reductionism, the “end-of-science notion”, the absurdity of a working “quantum computer”, string theory, the Big Bang “origin” of the universe, nanotechnology, post-modernist philosophy, rote learning in school, Reagan’s “star wars” project, etc., etc. I call them biases, but I actually think that he at least alluded to some very good arguments against these various fallacious ideas.

Politically the book has some serious defects, but also occasional dialectical insights. His brief defense of physicists working on nuclear weapons is self-serving and disgusting. Curiously, he even admits this when he notes what he apparently does not understand to be a basic principle of Marxist historical materialism: “It is natural for one’s worldview to be influenced by how one makes a living…” (p. 100). He fails to understand that while this is an explanation, it is not an excuse!

Another semi-serious item that sounds like it was inspired by Marx’s historical materialism is a comment he attributes to himself and/or to his colleague George Chapline: “It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money.” (p. 114) But for every correct or vaguely progressive insight of that sort, there are a handful—at least—of references to making money on the stock market, etc.

One more Marxist-like or dialectical-materialist comment (at least to my mind) is his excellent complaint about “an excessively mechanical understanding of ‘mechanical’” in some quarters. (P. 174.) (I make a similar comment in one of my essays, so I’m bound to appreciate that!)

There are other quite dialectical comments in the book too. One might almost say that Laughlin is an untrained, semi-conscious Marxist natural philosopher!

As a Marxist I guess I have to complain about his absurd view of “socialism” (pp. 196-197): “The fundamental premise of socialism is that known rules of human behavior, insofar as they are understood, ought to be controlled by governments for the mutual benefit of everyone.” I guess Laughlin has never read Marx, nor heard of the Marxist goal of the “withering away of the state”. His “understanding” of socialism is the usual sort of bourgeois parody based on the semi-fascist practice of the old revisionist Soviet Union. For the record, the true goal of communism is a society where, in Marx’s words, the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each. I.e., where people do not face the situation where the only road for their own personal advancement is on the backs of others; and thus where the exploitation and oppression of one social class by another is abolished. (And “socialism”, properly understood, is only a transitional stage between capitalism and communism.)

Overall summation: As I said at the beginning I had a complex reaction to the book, but overall it was far more positive than negative. For me, it takes only one or two profound comments to make any book worthwhile, and this book had quite a number of them! Yes, the book has defects. Yes, some of the physics went over my head and I only got part of what is probably in there out of it. It is probably not a book for everybody, not even for those with a casual interest in science. It is more a book on the philosophy of science. But for anyone with a deep interest in this whole idea of “emergence” and self-organization, and who is struggling with the rest of humanity to try to get clear on what these things are all about, this is close to essential reading. Someday it will all be much clearer, but for now the world is still working things out.

My rating (scale of 0 to 10): 8


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