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June 06, 2005
Brahmans of Science: Laureate Laughlin calls them out
Filed in: Book Reviews, Celestial, Current Affairs, Science

I finished reading a book on the 10 hour flight from Seattle to Narita over the weekend. It's called: A Different Universe - Reinventing Physics From The BottomDown. It's by Nobel Laureate Robert B. Laughlin who is the Robert M. and Anne Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University. He shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect in semiconductor physics. His book was just published this year - just a few weeks ago.

I like this book very much. Maybe I like it because he says a lot of the things that I've been saying - at least it sounds like that to me - and it's from someone who has a lot more credibility in the scientific community than I have.

Laughlin's book is about a lot of things - it touches on many subjects. But mostly, it is about the problems with reductionism and about the age of emergence (collective phenomena) which he champions. He contends that physics - and though he alludes to it, I don't think he comes out and says it completely so I will: all of 'science' - has been entirely focused on taking things apart - breaking them down into their most primitive constituents in an effort to understand and control them. In physics we see this in string theory for example - the constant quest for a 'theory of everything'. He contrasts this with the organizational properties of 'massive objects' (such as proteins and semi-conductors) and demonstrates that understanding the parts doesn't provide understanding of the 'wholes' - and in many cases, the 'whole' constructs provide detailed accuracy of things like scientific constants that flabbergast scientists when they discover them.

A case in point has to do with Laughlin's work with the Hall effect (which has to do with what happens when a magnet is placed next to a current flow.) Laughlin's Nobel work was related to a discovery that Klaus von Klitzing made involving low temperature semiconductors and the Hall effect - in field effect transistors at low temperature the Hall resistance becomes quantum mechanical and is revealed in 'quantum' stairsteps. Von Klitzing's insight was that these quantum staristeps were a combination of fundamental constants: the quantum of electric charge e, Planck's constant h, and the speed of light c - all of which we think of as the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Here's what Laughlin has to say about this:

This fact has the obvious implication that you can measure the building blocks with breathtaking accuracy without dealing with the building blocks directly. This is deeply important and deeply upsetting to most physicists. The more thoughtful of them find it impossible to believe until they study the numbers, end even then suspect something to be amiss. But nothing ever is... The impact this discovery had on physics would be hard to overstate. I remember the day my colleague Dan Tsui brought the von Klitzing paper and ... urged everyone to thing about where this astonishing accuracy could have come from. No one had an explanation. We all knew that von Klitzing's samples were imperfect... These [imperfections] are known to influence other electrical measurements... But this explanation turned out to be wrong. As a result of theoretical work done after the fact, including some of my own, we now understand that imperfection has actually the opposite effect, namely to cause the perfection of the measurement - a dramatic reversal worthy of the finest Greek drama. The quantum Hall effect is, in fact, a magnificent example of perfection emerging out of imperfection... Collective phenomena are both common in nature and central to modern physical science, so the effect is in this sense neither unprecedented nor hard to understand. However, the extreme accuracy of the von Klitzing effect makes its collective nature undeniable, and therein lies its special significance.

He goes on to say that this discovery was a watershed event in science - in which physical science stepped out of reductionism into the age of emergence. Laughlin and his colleagues went on to show that there are even quantized steps within the Hall effect which divide the fundamental electrical charge e into thirds and thus "proved the existence of new phases of matter in which the elementary excitations - the particles - carried an exact fraction of e." A further demonstration of emergence.

Laughlin addresses a number of subjects in this light - he's particularly fond of phase states of matter - and spends a good deal of time talking about water in its frozen, liquid, and vapor states - and what we don't understand today about those transitions.

He also introduces some new terms into the science lexicon - like 'protectionism' and 'Dark Corollaries' which is his effort to popularize the concepts of renormalization of which there is a large body of work in existence but which is poorly understood. Basically, there are natural barriers to getting any meaningful information by taking something more and more apart - both having to do with 'balance universalities' (like the invariance of scale), and relevance (or losing the meaning you are seeking by taking something further apart or running down a rabbit hole - what he calls a 'Deceitful Turkey'.) He also points out that getting people to understand this at large is a significant economic threat since so much of science is occupied with pursuing these things - which have little value. He ends his chapter on his new lexicon thus:

One can imagine I am none too popular saying things like this, but I do not care. It is better to be on target and hated than craven and beholden, and anyway, I have sacrificed plenty on the altar of irrelevance and thus know what I am talking about. But for those who are still not satisifed, I am selling little Dark Lord dolls in a likeness of myself, which they may purchase and then do with as they please. You pull a string and the doll squeaks out, "May the Schwartz be with you." It is adorable.

Oh, yes, did I say Laughlin was very funny?

He turns his attention for one chapter on the Principles of Life - and examines some of the same reductionist versus emergence arguments that he has earlier in reference to physics. For example:

... I know a terrible experiment when I see one. The symptoms are always the same. The measurements do not reproduce, they do not lend themsleves to commonsense analysis, and the cannot be quantified. The argument that animate things are just fundamentally different from inanimate things in this regard is false. There are plenty of highly quantifiable things in biology: the ribosomal genetic code, the fidelity of DNA replication, the crystal structure of proteins, the shapes of self-assembled virus parts, and even sophisticated behavior of higher organisms such as rats and people. The truth is that the control machinery for converting genes into life is not understood...

Whether such corollaries [the Dark Corollaries mentioned earlier] are at work in living things is not known, but the mere suggestion that they are has extremely disturbing implications for experimental biology. It places the burden of proof on the scientist to show that his or her experiment has meaning - something not commonly done at present, and even considered slightly diesreputable - since measuring first and asking questions later has the potential to generate massive amounts of information that is not even wrong. It impugns the common practice of not repeating and checking experiments, since variability need no longer be natural but a symptom of instability. It devalues truth determined by consensus to the status of politics and raises the possibility that the consensus is simple enshrined and legitimized falsehood. It transforms proprietary secrecy into a golden opportunity for fraud. [Emphasis added]

Laughlin delivers his most scorching criticism immediately after:

Most important of all, however, the presence of such corollaries raises the concern that much of present-day biological knowledge is ideological. A key symptom of idealogical thinking is the explanation that has no implications and cannot be tested. I call such logical dead ends antitheories because they have exactly the opposite effect of real theories: they stop thinking rather than stimulate it. Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrasing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong. Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reactions turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles that no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause! Sometimes one hears it argued that the issue is moot because biochemistry is a fact-based discipline for which theories are neither helpful or wanted. The argument is false, for theories are needed for formulating experiments. Biology has plenty of theories. They are just not discussed - or scrutinized - in public. The ostensibly noble repudiation of theoretical prejudice is, in fact, a cleverly disguised antitheory, whose actual function is to evade the requirement for logical consistency as a means of eliminating falsehood. We often ask ourselves nowadays whether evolution is an engineer or a magician - a discoverer and exploiter of preexisting physical principles or a worker of miracles - but we shouldn't. The former is theory, the latter antitheory. [Emphasis added]

This from someone not identified with the ID movement or anything like it.

Laughlin has quite a few other criticisms of the science establishment. I'll give you one more:

The need for precision, in turn, redoubles the need for that other great Greek tradition, open discussion of ideas and ruthless separation of meaningful things from meaningless ones. Precision alone does not guarantee good law. Financing practices in the Age of Emergence have the side effect of diluting content, engendering the famous joke that the Physical Review is now so voluminous that stacking up successive issues would generate a surface traveling faster than the speed of light - although without violating relativity because the Physical Review contains no information. The problems, which is not restricted to physics, occurs because large experimental laboratories cannot get the conitnued funding they need without defending their work from criticism, which they typically do by forming self-refereeing monopolies that define certain ideas and bodies of thought to be importatnt, whether they actually are or not...

I'll leave his ultimate punchline for you to grok for yourself. This is an amazing book - with significant implications for the future of science. I will watch intently to see how Laughlin is treated by his peers after they read his book.

I realize that much of what Laughlin writes is not about dissident science - but the issues, politics, and ideologies are the same. For me it is very meaningful to read someone as accomplished as Laughlin is, and hear him decry the same kind of conditions that describe our science culture that have disturbed me so much.

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