Monday, 30 June 2008

A Different Universe – Robert M. Laughlin ***

This rather quirky little book is certainly one of the most unique popular science books about physics I have read over the years. The basic argument that this title presents is that by taking a reductionist (i.e. nuts ‘n’ bolts) approach to understanding nature, physicists are not seeing the wood for the trees. Instead, Nobel Prize winner Robert Laughlin argues, physics should be concerned with emergent phenomena (i.e. what we get when the nuts ‘n’ bolts are put together) – the sort of things that chemists and biologists are typically concerned with.
Laughlin uses various examples such as: superconductivity, quantum computers, relativity, nanotechnology (of which he is incredibly dismissive) and the quantum Hall effect (the explanation of which Laughlin won his Nobel prize for) to make his case. Some of these examples don’t appear to be emergent at first glance – but as Laughlin points out this is often a case of misinterpretation of what is really going on.
The author makes effective use of humorous anecdotes and analogies to make his points. In some cases these work really well, but in some cases just serve to muddy the waters, and occasionally they verge on the completely irrelevant. There are also some fairly odd illustrations that don’t add anything at all to the book – why they have been included is a complete mystery!
Whether Laughlin succeeds in his argument is a moot point – the book certainly made me pause for thought – but I’m not sure that I was entirely convinced by the way that the science that was presented. I would argue that the book doesn’t reinvent physics as such – but it certainly does make a bold case for a new approach to the discipline.
I don’t think that this book would appeal to a general audience – you do need to have some grounding in the subject in order to really get to grips with the book’s ideas. Certainly physics lecturers/teachers, and students will find some interesting material in here, though.
Review by Scotty_73

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