Review Notes on Robert B. Laughlin's book
A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

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

[These are some notes I wrote up after the science book club I am part of read this book. My opinion of the book was much higher than that of the other members of the group. For their opinions see our group review.]

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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