Reductionism, 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 (Stanford University) treats readers to a variety of natural phenomena whose full understanding calls for a revolutionary mindset (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 that defy classical reductionism, he informs us about many recent developments in physics that have little to do with time-honored fundamental physics like elementary particles, quantum mechanics, string theories, etc. Indeed, he describes interpretations of quantum mechanics as “symptoms of a failed worldview.” He says things about some of the ten tenets of current physics that could annoy many physicists and, were it not that the author is a Nobel Laureate, would be brushed aside. But Laughlin speaks with deep understanding and insight, and contributes to, if not charts, new roads in science’s exploration of the phenomenal world. A very enlightening, revelatory, and entertaining book.
October 12, 2013