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Nature is a collective idea, and though its essence exist in each individual of the species, can never its perfection inhabit a single object. Henri Fuseli
Many years ago, when I was living near New York, I attended a retrospective of Ansel Adams, the great nature photographer, at the Museum of Modern Art. Like many people born in the American West, I had always liked Mr. Adams's work and felt I appreciated it better than New Yorkers ever could, so I jumped at the chance to see it firsthand. It was well worth the effort. Anyone seeing these images close up realizes at once that they are not simply sterile pictures of rocks and trees but thoughtful comments on the meaning of things, the immense age of the earth, and the impermanence of human concerns. This exhibition made a much stronger impression on me than I had expected, and it flashes into my mind even now when I am wrestling with a tough problem or having difficulty separating what is important from what is not.
Public television viewers were reminded recently by Ric Burns's excellent American Experience documentary that Mr. Adams's work, like any other art, was as much a creation of a specific time and place as of the artist himself. In the early part of the twentieth century, when Adams was a boy and the frontier had been declared closed, Americans debated vigorously over what its loss implied for their future. In the end, they decided that they did not want to be like Europe, that part of their identity, and of meaningful life generally, was in close proximity to wildness. Thus was born the metaphorical frontier-the myth of the cowboy, the vast landscape of the possible, the ideal of the rugged individual-that defines American culture to this day. Adams's work grew to maturity alongside this metaphor and derives its power by eliciting the nostalgia for untamed wilderness at its core.
The idea of the frontier is not just quaint provincialism. It is often spoken of as such, especially in Europe, where the mythological nature of the American West has always been easier to discern than it is here and is often viewed with suspicion. I first saw this idea expressed in a lengthy article on America in the magazine Stern when I was a soldier stationed in Germany in the early 1970s. Such articles are appearing with increasing frequency nowadays as the cold war recedes into history. But the perception is incorrect. While the confluence of cultural forces that generated Adams's images is uniquely American, the images themselves are not. The longing for a frontier seems to lie deep in the human soul, and people from different parts of the world and with different cultural backgrounds understand it quickly and intuitively. In no country does one have to dig very deep to find an appreciation of, and identification with, wildness. Adams's work travels well for this reason and has universal appeal.
The idea of science as a great frontier is similarly timeless. While there are clearly many nonscientific sources of adventure left, science is the unique place where genuine wildness may still be found. The wildness in question is not the lurid technological opportunism to which modern societies seem so hopelessly addicted, but rather the pristine natural world that existed before humans arrived-the vast openness of the lone rider splashing across the stream with three pack animals under the gaze of mighty peaks. It is the choreography of ecologies, the stately evolution of minerals in the earth, the motion of the heavens, and the birth and death of stars. Rumors of its death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.
My particular branch of science, theoretical physics, is concerned with the ultimate causes of things. Physicists have no monopoly on ultimate causes, of course, for everyone is concerned with them to some extent. I suspect it is an atavistic trait acquired long ago in Africa for surviving in a physical world in which there actually are causes and effects-for example between proximity to lions and being eaten. We are built to look for causal relations between things and to be deeply satisfied when we discover a rule with cascading implications. We are also built to be impatient with the opposite-forests of facts from which we cannot extract any meaning. All of us secretly wish for an ultimate theory, a master set of rules from which all truth would flow and that could forever free us from the frustration of dealing with facts. Its concern for ultimate causes gives theoretical physics a special appeal even to nonscientists, even though it is by most standards technical and abstruse.
It is also a mixture of good news and bad news. First you find that your wish for an ultimate theory at the level of human-scale phenomena has been fulfilled. We are the proud owners of a set of mathematical relationships that, as far as we know, account for everything in the natural world bigger than an atomic nucleus. They are very simple and beautiful and can be written in two or three lines. But then you find that this simplicity is highly misleading-rather like those inexpensive digital wristwatches with only one or two buttons. The equations are devilishly difficult to manipulate and impossible to solve in all but a small handful of instances. Demonstrating that they are correct requires arguments that are lengthy, subtle, and quantitative. It also requires familiarity with a huge body of work done after the Second World War. While the basic ideas were invented by Schrodinger, Bohr, and Heisenberg in the 1920s, it was not until powerful electronic computers were developed and armies of technically competent people were generated by governments that these ideas could be tested quantitatively against experiment over a wide range of conditions. Key technical developments, such as the purification of silicon and the perfection of atomic beam machines, were also important. Indeed, we might never have known for certain that the whole thing was correct had it not been for the cold war and the economic importance of electronics, radar, and accurate timekeeping, which made financing easy on various ostensibly practical grounds.
Thus eighty years after the discovery of the ultimate theory we find ourselves in difficulty. The repeated, detailed experimental confirmation of these relationships has now officially closed the frontier of reductionism at the level of everyday things. Like the closing of the American frontier, this is a significant cultural event, causing thoughtful people everywhere to debate what it means for the future of knowledge. There is even a best-selling book exploring the premise that science is at an end and that meaningful fundamental discovery is no longer possible. At the same time, the list of even very simple things found "too difficult" to describe with these equations continues to lengthen alarmingly.
Those of us out on the real frontier listening to the coyotes howl at night find ourselves chuckling over all this. There are few things a real frontiersman finds more entertaining than insights about wilderness from people back in civilization who can barely find the supermarket. I find this moment in history charmingly similar to Lewis and Clark's wintering on the Columbia estuary. Through grit and determination their party had pushed its way across a continent, only to discover that the value had not been in reaching the sea but in the journey itself. The official frontier at that time was a legal fiction having more to do with property rights and homesteading policy than a confrontation with nature. The same is true today. The real frontier, inherently wild, may be found right outside the door, if one only cares to look.
Despite being a wild place, the frontier is regulated by laws. In the mythical old West the law meant the force of civilization in a land where there was none, and it was often enforced by some heroic figure holding back the wildness of human nature through strength of will. A man had a choice of whether to obey this law or not, but he stood a good chance of getting gunned down if he did not. But there are natural laws as well, relationships among things that are always true regardless of whether people are present to observe them. The sun rises every morning. Heat flows from hot things to cold ones. Herds of deer spotting cougars always dash away. These are the exact opposite of laws of myth, in that they flow out of wildness and constitute its essence rather than being a means for its containment. Indeed, describing these things as laws is somewhat misleading, for it implies a kind of statute that otherwise willful natural things choose to obey. This is not correct. It is a codification of the way natural things are.
The important laws we know about are, without exception, serendipitous discoveries rather than deductions. This is fully compatible with one's everyday experience. The world is filled with sophisticated regularities and causal relationships that can be quantified, for this is how we are able to make sense of things and exploit nature to our own ends. But the discovery of these relationships is annoyingly unpredictable and certainly not anticipated by scientific experts. This commonsense view continues to hold when the matter is examined more carefully and quantitatively. It turns out that our mastery of the universe is largely a bluff-all hat and no cattle. The argument that all the important laws of nature are known is simply part of this bluff. The frontier is still with us and still wild.
The logical conflict between an open frontier on the one hand and a set of master rules on the other is resolved by the phenomenon of emergence. The term emergence has unfortunately grown to mean a number of different things, including supernatural phenomena not regulated by physical law. I do not mean this. I mean a physical principle of organization. Human societies obviously have rules of organization that transcend the individual. An automobile company, for example, does not cease to exist if one of its engineers gets run over by a truck. The government of Japan does not change very much after an election. But the inanimate world also has rules of organization, and they similarly account for many things that matter to us, including most of the higher-level physical laws we use in our daily lives. Such commonplace things as the cohesiveness of water or the rigidity of steel are simple cases in point, but there are countless others. Nature is full of highly reliable things that are primitive versions of impressionist paintings. A field of flowers rendered by Renoir or Monet strikes us as interesting because it is a perfect whole, while the daubs of paint from which it is constructed are randomly shaped and imperfect. The imperfection of the individual brush strokes tells us that the essence of the painting is its organization. Similarly, the ability of certain metals to expel magnetic fields exactly when they are refrigerated to ultralow temperatures strikes us as interesting because the individual atoms out of which the metal is made cannot do this.
Since principles of organization-or, more precisely, their consequences -can be laws, these can themselves organize into new laws, and these into still newer laws, and so on. The laws of electron motion beget the laws of thermodynamics and chemistry, which beget the laws of crystallization, which beget the laws of rigidity and plasticity, which beget the laws of engineering. The natural world is thus an interdependent hierarchy of descent not unlike Jonathan Swift's society of fleas:
So, naturalists observe, the flea Has smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller still to bite 'em And so proceed ad infinitum.
This organizational tendency is so powerful that it can be difficult to distinguish a fundamental law from one of its progeny. The only way we know that the behavior of cats is not fundamental, for example, is because cats fail to work when pushed beyond their proper operating limits, so to speak. Similarly, the only way we know atoms are not fundamental is that they come apart when caused to collide at great speed. This principle continues down to smaller and smaller scales: the nuclei from which atoms are made come apart when caused to collide at greater speed, the parts liberated from the nucleus come apart at even greater speeds, and so forth. Thus the tendency of nature to form a hierarchical society of physical laws is much more than an academic debating point. It is why the world is knowable. It renders the most fundamental laws, whatever they are, irrelevant and protects us from being tyrannized by them. It is the reason we can live without understanding the ultimate secrets of the universe.
Thus the end of knowledge and the closing of the frontier it symbolizes is not a looming crisis at all, but merely one of many embarrassing fits of hubris in civilization's long history. In the end it will pass away and be forgotten. Ours is not the first generation to struggle to understand the organizational laws of the frontier, deceive itself that it has succeeded, and go to its grave having failed. One would be wise to be humble, like the Irish fisherman observing quietly that the sea is so wide and his boat so small. The wildness we all need to live, grow, and define ourselves is alive and well, and its glorious laws are all around.
Excerpted from A Different Universe by Robert B. Laughlin Copyright © 2005 by Robert B. Laughlin. Excerpted by permission.
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|2||Living with uncertainty||9|
|4||Water, ice, and vapor||33|
|6||The quantum computer||59|
|8||I solved it at dinner||81|
|9||The nuclear family||99|
|10||The fabric of space-time||117|
|11||Carnival of the baubles||127|
|12||The dark side of protection||143|
|13||Principles of life||157|
|15||Picnic table in the sun||193|
|16||The emergent age||205|
Posted August 8, 2006
My guess is that this is a Nobel laureate vanity publication. It is a collection of anecdotes and observations of a prize winner who everyone should now listen to. He claims to be addressing some sort of controversy in physics. At no time does he state directly what the controversy is and at no time does he directly address the problems of the sides of the controversy. I found the book very uninformative and uninteresting. It was a rather disappointing read.
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Posted February 1, 2010
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Posted January 22, 2010
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