On Robert B. Laughlin’s “A Different Universe: reinventing physics from bottom down.” (2005)


Reductionism, which achieved some pretty spectacular things in its heyday which lasted for at least three centuries, has been receiving quite a beating in recent decades, and not just from philosophers and postmodernists. In this fascinating book, interspersed with witty lines and anecdotes, physicist Robert Laughlin does his part in these efforts. He treats the reader to a variety of natural phenomena whose full understanding calls for a revolutionary mind-set (paradigm shift) in science’s approach to the phenomenal world. From superfluids to grains of salt, and much in between and beyond, one is helpless without the notions of complexity, emergence and collective behavior. As he reflects on the fascinating phenomena which defie classical reductionism, he informs us about many recent developments in physics which have little to do with time-honored fundamental physics like elementary particles, quantum mechanics, string theories et al. Indeed, he describes interpretations of quantum mechanics as “symptoms of a failed worldview.” He says other things too about some of the tenets of current physics which could annoy many physicists, and which, were it not for the fact that the author is a Nobel laureate, would be brushed off as resulting from not understanding physics. But Laughlin speaks with deep understanding and insight, and contributes to, if not charts, a new road in science’s exploration of the phenomenal world. The new agenda has already borne many fruits (of which Laughlin speaks eloquently with concise clarity), but perhaps this could have been done without the harshness against classical worldviews which is injected here and there in this very enlightening, revelatory, and entertaining book. This book is not just a clarion call for a New Kind of Science: it is, no less, an elucidation of the new and fertile pathway along which some subfields of physics have been marching of late.

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