Matter and little ghosts

An interesting citation from Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe, Chapter 4, Water, Ice, and Vapor, p. 42.

By the most important effect of phase organisation is to cause objects to exist. This point is subtle and easily overlooked, since we are accustomed to thinking about solidification in terms of packing of Newtonian spheres. Atoms are not Newtonian spheres, however, but ethereal quantum-mechanical entities lacking that most central of all properties of an object – an identifiable position. This is why attempts to describe free atoms in Newtonian terms always result in nonsense statements such as their being neither here nor there but simultaneously everywhere. It is aggregation into large objects that makes a Newtonian description of the atoms meaningful, not the reverse. One might compare this phenomenon with a yet-to-be-filmed Stephen Spilberg movie in which a huge number of little ghosts lock arms and, in doing so, become corporeal.

Chapter 1 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

Science as a frontier:

The idea of science as a great frontier is similarly timeless. While there are clearly many nonscientific sources of adventure left, science is the unique place where genuine wildness may still be found.

Ultimate theory:

My particular branch of science, theoretical physics, is concerned with the ultimate causes of things.

I suspect it is an atavistic trait aquired long ago in Africa for surviving in a physical world in which there actually are causes and effects – for example proximity to lions and being eaten.

All of us secretly wish for an ultimate theory, a master set of rules form which all truth would flow and that could forever free us from the frustration of dealing with facts.

First you find that your wish for an ultimate theory at the level of human-scale phenomena has been fulfilled.

The repeated, detailed experimental confirmation of these relationships has now official closed the frontier of reductionism at the level of everyday things.


The important laws we know about are, without exception, serendipitous discoveries rather than deductions.

The logical conflict between an open frontier on the one hand and a set of master rules on the other is resolved by the phenomenon of emergence.

I mean a physical principle of organisation.

Thus the tendency of nature to form a hierarchical society of physical laws is much more that an academic debating point. It 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.

Thus the end of knowledge and the closing of the frontier it symbolizes is not a looming crisis at all, but merely one of many embarrassing fits of hubris in civilization’s long history.

Chapter 2 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

Biologists and physicists:

… most biologists consider the physicists’ obsession with certainty and correctness to be exasperatingly childish and evidence of their limited mental capacities. Physicists, in contrast, consider tolerance of uncertainty to be an excuse for second-rate experimentation and a potential source of false claim.

Importance of measurement in physics:

The impulse to measure things accurately is the same as the impulse to make do-it-yourself repairs.

It is why buildings and academic majors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have numbers rather than names. Accurate measurement is simply natural behavior for people who see nothing strange in creating building ten, building thirteen, and course eight.

Physical scientists, on the other hand, tend to see the matter morally. They orient their lives around the assumption that the world is precise and orderly, and that its occasional failure to conform to this vision is a misperception brought about by their not having measured sufficiently accurately or thought sufficiently carefully about the results.

My brother-in-law the divorce atterney says that his most exasperating clients are Silicon Valley engineers, who typically want to just write down the family assets, divide them equally, shake hands, and be done with it.

Universal physical quantities:

Paradoxically, the existence of these highly reproducible experiments leads us to think in two mutually incompatible ways about what is fundamental. One is that exactness reveals something about the primitive buildings blocks out of which our complicated, uncertain world is made. … The other is that exactness is a collective effect that comes into existence because of a principle of organization.

A much more immediate and troubling case of collectivism is the determination of the electron charge and Planck’s constant by means of macroscopic measurements. … Both are highly reductionist concepts, and both are traditionally determined using huge machines that measure properties of individual electrons ripped off of atoms. But their most accurate determination turns out to come not from these machines at all but simply from combining the Josephson and von Klitzing constants, the measurement of which requires nothing more sophisticated than a cryogenic refrigerator and a voltmeter.

But the electron charge is another matter. We are accustomed to thinking of this charge as a building block of nature requiring no collective context to make sense. The experiment in question, of course refute this idea. They reveal that the electron charge makes sense only in a collective context …

Chapter 3 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

“Despite the success of Newton’s laws and the engineering advances they made possible, many people still find the clockwork universe difficult to accept. It flies in the face of our commonsense understanding of the complexity of nature and our belief that the future is not completely predestined but depends on how we choose to behave.”

“The existence of physical law is, in fact, astonishing and should be just as troubling to a thinking person today as it was in the seventeenth century when the scientific case for it was first made. We believe in universal physical law not because it ought to be true but because highly accurate experiments have given us no choice.”

“A universal constant is a measurement that comes out the same every time. A physical law is a relationship between measurements that comes out the same every time.”

“Over the years, as the list of successes of Newton’s law lengthened, there arose a speculative use of them very different from the original highly conservative one. The new strategy was to assume that Newton’s laws were true in circumstances where one could not verify this directly, compute various physical properties based on this assumption, and then argue from agreement with experiment that the initial assumptions were correct.

“Thus we say that the kinetic theory “explains” the ideal gas law – meaning that it accounts for the origin of the law. But this reasoning has the obvious flaw that the behavior against which tests the assumptions might be a universal collective phenomenon.”

“Atoms are not billiard balls at all but waves, as are their constituents, which bind together to form atoms the way waves of water bind to make a surge.”

“Thus Newton’s legendary laws have turned out to be emergent. The are not fundamental at all but a consequence of the aggregation of quatum matter into macroscopic fluids and solids – a collective organizational phenomenon.”

Chapter 6 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

“Men always want to tinker with the computer, she said, take it apart, add memory and peripherals, and so forth, while the women concentrate on more important things like sending out hundreds of email invitations to a wedding shower.”

“Women just seem to intuitively understand better than men that how a thing works matters much less than what one uses it for.”

“However, quantum computation has a terrible Achilles heel that become clear when one confronts the problem of reading out the answer: the effects that distinguish quantum computers from conventional ones also cause quantum indeterminism. Quantum-mechanical wave functions do indeed evolve deterministically, but the process of turning them into signals people can read generates errors.”

“Thus the frenzy over quantum computing misses the point that the physical basis of computational reliability is emergent Newtonianness. One can imagine doing a computation without exploiting these principles, just as one can imagine proving by brute force that broken symmetry occurs, but a much more likely outcome is that eliminating computational mistakes will prove to be fundamentally impossible because its physical basis is absent. The view that this problem is trivial is a fantasy spun out of reductionist beliefs. Naturally, I hope that I am wrong, and I wish those who invest in quantum computing the best of luck.”

“One of the more interesting trends of the computer age is that physical science students are increasingly unwilling or unable to write computer code. I was very upset when I first observed this and took stern measures in my department to counteract it … Eventually, however, I realized that the students were right and I was wrong, and stopped the crusade. … The truth is that it is no longer cost-effective for most well-educated people to program their own computers, or even to learn how to do so. The wise use of time is to spend a few bucks to buy a program that does what one wants or, in extreme cases, search the internet for free software.”

Chapter 7 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

The fractional quantum Hall effect reveals that ostensibly indivisible quanta – in this case the electron charge e – can be broken into pieces though self-organization of phases. The fundamental things, in other words, are not necessarily fundamental.

The important issue implicit in the von Klizting discovery is not the existence of physical law but rather what physical law is, where it comes from, and what its implication are. From the reductionist standpoint, physical law is the motivating impulse of the universe. It does not come from anywhere and implies everything. From the emergentist perspective, physical law is a rule of collective behavior, it is consequence of more primitive rules of behavior underneath (although it need not have been), and it gives one predictive power over a limited range of circumstances. Outside this range, it becomes irrelevant, supplanted by other rules that either its children or its parents in a hierarchy of descent. Neither of these viewpoints can gain ascendancy over the other by means of facts, for both are fact based and both are true in the traditional scientific sense of the term. The issue is more subtle – a matter of institutional judgment. To paraphrase George Orwell, all facts are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Chapter 9 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

The more important matter is that ideologies preclude discovery. All of us see the world as we wish it were rather than as it actually is, for it is in our nature, but we need to keep in mind that this is a design flaw of the human mind and resist it if we can. Seeing through ideologies and debunking them is what real science is all about. Mental life in general, actually.

Chapter 11 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

One does so by means of complexity theory, a branch of mathematics born in the 1970s that subsumes the topics of chaos, fractals, and cellular automata. The strategy of complexity theory is to so simplify and abstract the equations of motion of matter that they can be solved reliably by computer. This abstraction, however, is a pact with the devil, since the resulting equations so grotesquely distort things that you no longer have a faithful representation of nature. The value of complexity theory is thus limited to showing that emergence of complex patterns is reasonable. It cannot supply predictive models any natural phenomenon, and it is certainly not a fundamentally new way of thinking.

How otherwise coldly logical people could fixate on such manifestly unimportant matters is a fascinating question – one ultimately answered, in my view, by the seductive power of reductionist belief. The idea that nanoscale objects ought to be controllable is so compelling it blinds a person to the overwhelming evidence that they cannot be.

The conflict between physicists and chemists over who better understands emergent self-organization has its roots in an important and decidedly unscientific aspect of human phychology: To most of us, understanding a thing is synonymous with controlling it. … From a chemist’s perspective, understanding a thing usually means making it and observing it, preferably before anyone else does. For a physicist’s perspective, understanding a thing means categorizing it, making absolutely sure that this categorization is correct, and relating it to other similar things.

Chapter 12 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

The Dark Corollaries also have important and disturbing consequences for business and the economy. … Suppose I write a computer program that allegedly predicts something. I tell you the underlying equations – in other words, what the code ostensibly does – but not reveal the method by which I solved them. I allege that solving these equations correctly is just a matter of being smart enough … You are sure you wrote the code correctly and now realize that I simply lied, since the equations are unstable. … No one can solve them! Proving this, however, is impossible for the same reason that they cannot be solved in the first place, no can you check what I did to see whether it is right, because it is proprietary. …  The most you can do is to write a paper or patent saying you have some “technology” that does something different from what mine does and has a different practical application.

We can put a positive spin on the sitation by saying that unstable physical systems are important economically because they enable us to reveal the fundamentals of a thing without revealing the thing itself.

Chapter 13 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

Life is especially fun to talk about from a physical perspective because it is the most extreme case of the emergence of law. In fact, the entire idea of emergence was invented by biologists to explain why some aspects of living things – the rodlike shapes of some bacteria, for example, or the tendency of bunnies to run away from foxes – are stable and reproducible, while the microscopic laws of chemistry from which they descend are random and probabilistic. There are lots of examples of such things from intermediate-scale chemistry – gels, surface structure of crystals, and so forth – but the granddaddy of them is the functioning of large organisms, such as people.

… science and engineering differ in one central respect; in science, you gain power by telling people what you know; in engineering, you gain power by preventing people from knowing what you know.

The engineering value in biotech is not in understanding life but rather in designing drugs, inventing new health therapies, and creating new artificial organisms for agriculture. For these purposes, correct theories of regulatory processes are less important that rough, simple ideas that can motivate chemical manipulation.

Collective instability would create a Barrier of Relevance capable of destroying the predictive power and falsifiability of theories, and it would also fool people, through the Deceitful Turkey effect, into thinking they had found explanation for things where they actually had not. In other words, the machinery of life is rendered inaccessible by the very physical principle central to its function. This being the case, nature itself is the censor, not legislators or bureaucrats.

Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong. Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reaction turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause!

The reflection of emergence is justified as defending science from mysticism. The ostensible scientific view is that life is chemical process, and that the bold, manful thing to do is identify and manipulate them with stupendous amounts of money and supercomputers. The corresponding mystical view is that life is a beautifully unknowable thing that can only be screwed up by humans with all their money and computer cycles. Between these extremes we have the profoundly important, but poorly understood, idea that the unknowability of living things may actually be a physical phenomenon.

Chapter 14 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

However, the studiousness was misleading, for what I was actually doing all that time in the bowels of the library was not my homework but something funding agents in Washington viscerally hate and have come to disparagingly refer to as “curiosity-driven research” – rapid, off-line investigations of things I judged to be important.

The practicalities of responsible adulthood are arguably the reason discoveries tend to be made by the young. It is not that young people are smarter, although they often are, but that they have fewer promises to keep.

Not surprisingly, many amusing things happen to anarchists when they grow up … For example, there is my colleague who used to argue passionately for the holy obligation of taxpayers to support ground-breaking technological research – until his wife launched a technology company and started paying taxes.

In physics we have endured a great deal of sacrifice recently as nuclear weapons have faded into the past, electronic hardware has migrated to the Far East, software has migrated to India, and research portfolios have shifted toward pharmaceuticals and medicine.

There will always be scientists – real ones – for the simple reason that there will always be a steady trickle of anarchists generated by responsible and good families doing their level best to avoid this outcome and produce only bankers, doctors, and soccer coaches. As the older ones are killed of by the practicalites of life, newer ones rise up to take their place like new grass in spring, in a cycle of creative rebirth that transcends the generations and is older than history.

Chapter 15 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

We scientists tend to think of art, history, and so forth as interesting but too complex to be professionally useful to us, while the humanists tend to think of physics, chemistry, and so forth as interesting but too simple to be professionally useful to them.

Humanists have a strange practice of organizing discussions around words rather than things – the exact opposite of how it works in physical science – presumably because their business is understanding how people work rather than understanding how machines work.

In the book the context around the next definitions is rather ironic.

Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient.

Chapter 16 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

Ironically, the very success of reductionism has helped pave the way for its eclipse. Over time, careful quantitative study of microscopic parts has revealed that at the primitive level at least, collective principles of organization are not just a quaint side show but everything – the true source of physical law, including perhaps the most fundamental laws we know.

The transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case.

Greek creation myths satirize many things in modern life, particularly cosmological theories. Exploding things, such as dynamite or the big bang, are unstable. Theories of explosions, including the first picoseconds of the big bang, thus cross Barriers of Relevance and are inherently unfalsifiable, notwithstanding widely cited supporting “evidence” such as isotopic abundances at the surface of stars and the cosmic microwave background anisotropy.

The analogy with Greek religion also applies to the humbler end of the research spectrum, where warring among scientists to see whose emergent god is more powerful is an everyday reality. A case in point is ordinary semiconduction. Back when I was in grade school, it was said that the tribe of semiconductor physics lived in piece in the Silicon Valley and worshiped crystallinity, the daughter of which, the gods of valence band and conduction band, caused transistor actions and prosperity. But then they were invaded by a hostile tribe of chemists, who worshiped not the crystal but the molecule and who believed its offspring, the lowest unoccupied molecular orbital and highest occupied molecular orbital, were the true cause of transistor action, and that the worshipers of the old gods wre inferior and unclean. The two tribes engaged in bloody combat – fought with disinformation, dirty tricks, and refusal to speak the name of the other tribe’s god – each hoping to starve the other tribe of research dollars and thus to annihilate it. The war resulted in stalemate, the vestiges of which persist today. As often happens in conflicts of this kind, the war was not really over conceptual matters at all but money, for these warring gods are actually different names for the same thing. Similar wars occur routinely in biology, although they are vastly nastier on account of the greater resources involved.