Philip Anderson’s Emergence as Himself

by David Kordahl

Philip W. Anderson (1923-2020)

The physicist Philip W. Anderson, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1977, has lingered in the broader scientific imagination for two main reasons—reasons, depending on your vantage, that cast him either as a hero, or as a villain.

The heroic Anderson is the author of “More Is Different,” the 1972 essay that wittily dismisses the idea that the laws of physics governing the microscopic constituents of matter are by themselves enough to capture the full richness of the world. His vision of science as a “seamless web” of interconnections led to his becoming one of the public faces of so-called “complexity science,” and a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute.

The villainous Anderson is remembered for taking this position—the position that the low-level laws of physics do not exhaust fundamental physics—in front of Congress. Anderson’s tart exchanges with Steven Weinberg before the Senate debating the merits of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) begin a new biography, A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many, by Andrew Zangwill. When the SSC was canceled, Anderson, who argued that the funds would be better spent on a wider variety of projects, became a target of physicists’ ire, despite his lack of any significant political influence. (Weinberg’s last book of essays, which I reviewed, extensively discussed the politics of the SSC.)

But Anderson, who died just last year, was much more than just a hero or villain. A Mind Over Matter makes the case that Anderson was “one of the of the most accomplished and influential physicists of the twentieth century.” In presenting the evidence, Zangwill, who is himself a notable physicist, gives us a tour of condensed-matter physics, the science that deals with the properties of materials not atom-by-atom but roughly 1023 particles at a time, a subject where Anderson’s influence continues on. Read more »