Reinventing Physics: the Search for the Real Frontier

Robert B. Laughlin, a professor of physics at Stanford University and a 1998 Nobel laureate in physics, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

20040909016l It is a terrible thing that science has grown so distant from the rest of our intellectual life, for it did not start out that way. The writings of Aristotle, for example, despite their notorious inaccuracies, are beautifully clear, purposeful, and accessible. So is Darwin’s Origin of Species. The opacity of modern science is an unfortunate side effect of professionalism, and something for which we scientists are often pilloried — and deservedly so. Everyone gets wicked pleasure from snapping on the radio on the drive home from work to hear Doctor Science give ludicrous answers to phone-in questions such as why cows stand in the same direction while grazing (they must face Wisconsin several times a day) and then finish up with, “And remember: I know more than you. I have a master’s degree in science.” On another occasion my father-in-law remarked that economics had been terrific until they made it into a science. He had a point.

The conversation about physical law started me thinking about what science had to say about the obviously very unscientific chicken-and-egg problem of laws, organizations of laws, and laws from organization. I began to appreciate that many people had strong views on this subject, but could not articulate why they held them. The matter had come to a head recently when I realized I was having the same conversation over and over again with colleagues about Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (W.W. Norton, 1999), a popular book about string theory — a set of speculative ideas about the quantum mechanics of space. The conversation focused on the question of whether physics was a logical creation of the mind or a synthesis built on observation.

More here. (The essay is adapted from A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down, to be published in March by Basic Books.)