R Wray

Emergent Theory

6 posts in this topic

Last evening I attended a public lecture by Robert Laughlin, a Stanford physics professor and a Nobel Prize in Physics winner in 1988 for work on the Hall effect. He has a book out, A Different Universe. I haven’t read his book, and I don’t pretend to understand his theory from the brief lecture, but he has an interesting perspective. (Amazon.com has some reviews of his book.)

He claims that all the fundamental laws of physics are “in fact emergent and are properties of large assemblages of matter”. An example is “the law of rigidity”. He says that you can’t get it by looking at the individual atoms—it goes away on the atomic level. His analogy is a French painting: you have to step back to see the painting; the individual dots tell you nothing of the meaning.

He says there are two basic conflicting ideas in physics: the fundamental and the emergent theories. He is completely on the emergent side. But he says the controversy is really not physics. Does he mean that it is philosophy? He asks, what is a law? Where does it come from? He says the agent of the law is organization, like in crystallization or in magnetism. (I am suspicious of this because it sounds too much like collectivization. Is he saying that 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong? But the discussion is about physics, not politics.)

He had said some good things. Quantum mechanics is deterministic. (He claims most of the German physicists were Buddhists.) String theory is mythological. Einstein would be appalled at the state of physics today.

Another thread in this forum discusses reductionism (in relation to consciousness and the brain). I find it interesting that emergent theory (like emergent evolution) seems to be (at least in some respects) the opposite of reductionism

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Last evening I attended a public lecture by Robert Laughlin, a Stanford physics professor and a Nobel Prize in Physics winner in 1988 for work on the Hall effect.

The Hall effect itself goes back more than a century; Robert Laughlin's Nobel was for his theoretical work related to what is known as the fractional quantum Hall effect.

He has a book out, A Different Universe. I haven’t read his book, and I don’t pretend to understand his theory from the brief lecture, but he has an interesting perspective. (Amazon.com has some reviews of his book.)

I have not read this new popular book, but I have discussed with Robert Laughlin some of the issues you raise in this post. He does have an interesting perspective on a number of things, but a commonality in what he is against still leaves open the issue of what he is for. Emergence is a strong theme in Laughlin's theories, but not necessarily in the specific work he has done. Truth be told, my own view is that the notion of "emergence" is being tossed around and applied so much that it has all but lost a good part of its meaning. Laughlin has entertained the idea that the big bang itself may be some emergent phenomenon because large-scale structures in the universe have similarities to such small-scale objects like popcorn.

If you read it I am sure there will be things of value in his book, but I am equally sure there will be a lot of strange things as well. The difficulty lies in discerning the difference.

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I'd like to ask, what is the law of rigidity?

Laughlin claims that you can’t get at rigidity by looking at, for example, an aluminum atom, but if a very large number of the atoms assemble (crystallize), a “law of rigidity” emerges that one can use to design an airplane out of the material. (His law of rigidity must be in normal terms, mechanical stress analysis.) This is one of his examples to illustrate how all the laws of nature (for example, even Newton’s laws) emerge from large assemblages of matter. He doesn’t seem to care much for particle physics research.

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I'd like to ask, what is the law of rigidity?

Laughlin claims that you can’t get at rigidity by looking at, for example, an aluminum atom, but if a very large number of the atoms assemble (crystallize), a “law of rigidity” emerges that one can use to design an airplane out of the material. (His law of rigidity must be in normal terms, mechanical stress analysis.) This is one of his examples to illustrate how all the laws of nature (for example, even Newton’s laws) emerge from large assemblages of matter. He doesn’t seem to care much for particle physics research.

Laughlin is not really dismissive of "particle physics research." It is rather that he tends to focus on underlying elements from which he thinks emerge the phenomenon that the research studies. For instance, in one of his papers on fractional quantization (Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 71, No. 4, pp. 863-874, July 1999) he focuses on how he considers his fractional quantum hall quasiparticles, and their gauge force, to arise spontaneously as an emergent phenomena. This is why I previously mentioned that the very concept of emergence is losing its meaning in light of its precarious use, by Laughlin and others. The problem is that causality is being replaced with lower-level "principles of organization" and higher-level emergent properties and systems. Physics deals with causal principles and mechanisms. not simply organizational descriptions. Recognizing the emergence of properties and systems is nice, but it does not take the place of causality.

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The problem is that causality is being replaced with lower-level "principles of organization" and higher-level emergent properties and systems. Physics deals with causal principles and mechanisms. not simply organizational descriptions. Recognizing the emergence of properties and systems is nice, but it does not take the place of causality.

That’s a very good identification. That is what I was trying to understand. Thank you.

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