Carnival of the Baubles

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.

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