The Emergent Age

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.