Monday, June 26, 2006

Emergent Ideas

My conference talk went reasonably well and provided me the opportunity to engage in some thought-provoking conversations.

One title that came up is Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin's A Different Universe. The book contains some provocative ideas that sound promising, but need to be fleshed out more.

The book wanders off on many tangents, but the central theme is that the laws of physics are "emergent." Emergence means that the organization of a particular system cannot be deduced from lower-level laws. For example, a biological system is in some way independent of the minutiae of its chemistry and physics. The term itself is poorly chosen, as it seems to imply that organization bubbles from "below," when actually the term signifies that organization comes from somewhere (anywhere) else (perhaps from "above" or from the whole collective). I think of the term as a verbal fig leaf for reductionists—their last grasp on science is semantic. A better term is needed badly. For now I'll just put emergence in quotation marks.

The clearest examples are in biology:

Life is especially fun to talk about from a physical perspective because it is the most extreme case of the emergence of law. In fact, the entre idea of emergence was invented by biologists to explain some aspects of living things—the rodlike shapes of some bacteria, for example, or the tendency of bunnies to run away from foxes—are stable and reproducible, while the microscopic laws of chemistry from which they descend [wc] are random and probabilistic. (158)

The stability of large systems (insensitivity to low-level perturbations) also creates a barrier of unknowability. As Laughglin puts it, "The machinery of life is rendered inaccessible by the very physical principles central to its function" (166).

Thus the presenter of a paper reports writing a computer program based on fictitious laws of motion for the atoms, and then using this program to predict the shapes of proteins from the unerlying DNA sequence. that this strategy works at all (which it does some of the time) indicates that the particular protein's folded up structure does not depend sensitively on the details of the interatomic forces, since if it did, one would have to implement a correct solution of the correct equations of motion. Yet if one asked these same people, or their grant monitors whether they believed universal principles were at work, so that one could speak sensibly of "hemoglobinness" or "ribosomeness," most of them would say no. (171)

Between these extremes [scientific view that life is just chemistry vs. mystical view that life is fully unknowable] we have the profoundly important, but poorly understood, idea that the unknowability of living things may actually be a physical phenomenon. This does not make life any less wonderful, but simply identifies how its inaccessibility could be fully compatible with reductionist law. (173)

Laughlin is a solid state physicist. His specialty is statistical phenomena, so he might be said to have a bias when he puts collective phenomena as more fundamental than "fundamental" field theories like String Theory.1 Laughlin boldly extends "emergence" to the laws of physics:

Newton's legendary laws have turned out to be emergent. They are not fundamental at all but a consequence of the aggregation of quantum matter into macroscopic fluids and solids—a collective organizational phenomenon. They were the first laws to be discovered, they brought the technological age into existence, and they are as exact and true as anything we know in physics—yet they vanish into nothingness when examined too closely. Astonishing as it may seem, many physicists remain in denial. to this day, they organize conferences on the subject and routinely speak about Newton's laws being an "approximation" for quantum mechanics, valid when the system size is large—even though no legitimate approximation scheme has ever been found. the requirement that Newton's laws emerge in the macroscopic limit was christened the principle of correspondence in the early days of quantum mechanics.... But the correspondence principle remains mathematically unprovable. (31-32)

We are accustomed to thinking of [electron charge] as a building block of nature requiring no collective context to make sense. The experiments in question, of course, refute this idea. They reveal that the electron charge makes sense only in a collective context, which may be provided by either the vacuum of space, which modifies this charge the same way it modifies atomic wavelengths, or by some matter that preempts the vacuum's effects. (18)

The myth of collective behavior following from law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it, such as logic and mathematics [!]. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law. (209)

In this last paragraph, he seems to go too far in claiming that logic and mathematics flow from collective behavior. Were that the case, it would seem that the individuals composing the collective would not obey logic and mathematics. The fact that Laughlin doesn't seem to be aware of this problem, makes me hesitate to endorse his program. In fact one has to wonder what rules (laws) govern the interactions of particles to give rise to the charge of the electron, since that charge itself is in some sense the cause of the electromagnetic laws that we would normally claim to mediate interactions.

But the central idea is promising. It will be interesting to see what he has to say in future.


1. Everyone favors his own field. I've said before that if trash-men specialized in writing and talking, Plato wouldn't have had the philosopher king, but the trash-man king.

Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

Physics Today has a news item about Laughlin's departure from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology: June 2006 (subscription required). Here's a free article on Laughlin's replacement: MIT Professor Named KAIST President

Laughlin's Nobel Prize autobiography

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Excuses and some small items

Life just threw me a MAJOR curve ball this Monday, and I'm busy dealing with it. Plus I'm working on the paper I'll be presenting next week at the Two Tasks conference. For these reasons I don't anticipate being able to post anything substantive before the beginning of July.

In the meantime, the disingenuity over the immigration issue continues to gall me. Liberals and a lot of soft-headed conservatives seem think that the way to help these poor folks is to let them enter our country freely. Wrong! The caring path is to make Vincente Fox take care of his own people, instead of giving him a safety-valve for his unwanted population. As a friend of mine observed, if it weren't for the U.S., Mexico would have had a (much needed) revolution some time ago. Fox and his wealthy cronies can continue to turn a deaf ear to their countrymen without forfeiting their sinecures only because they are empowered by the American wealthy elite (Bush, et al.). The net result is the enrichment of wealthy Mexicans at the expense of our American working class. It's one thing for our lower classes to float the rich, but it's quite another for them to float the rich of another country!

The best things I've seen written on the subject have been in The American Conservative. Unfortunately most of the articles are unavailable online (a shame, as it impoverishes the debate). In case you missed it, the most pertinent article was in the May 22 issue, by George W. Grayson, "Looking Out for Numero Uno: While the country's poor flee, Mexico's elite take care of themselves," 23-25.

I stick by my plan to rent territory from Mexico as the best (long-term) way to fix the problem. Smart money (or is that "Big Money"?) is against its being enacted because the American hunger for cheap labor is necessarily local.

Another item (tangentially related) that might be of interest is the imminent book by my friend Tim Carney, due for release July 11, that can be preordered from Amazon now:

The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.

Tim is a smart writer (formerly worked for Bob Novak), so the book promises to be incisive and insightful.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Idylls of Late Spring

I've recently discovered that we don't have spring up here in northern New England: it goes straight from winter to summer. Nevertheless it's good to recall the delight of the proper transition between the two extremes.

Victor Hugo drones interminably on at times, but sometimes soars resplendently. Here's an unparalleled passage I ran across in Les Miserables.

It had rained the night before, and even a little that morning. But in June showers are of no account. It is with difficulty that we can realise, an hour after a storm, that this fine fair day has been rainy. The ground in summer is as soon dry as the cheek of a child.

At this time of the solstice, the light of the full moon is, so to speak, piercing. It seizes upon everything. It applies itself and spreads itself over the earth with a sort of suction. One would say that the sun was thirsty. A shower is a glass of water; a rain is swallowed immediately. In the morning all is streaming, in the afternoon all is dusty.

Nothing is so admirable as a verdure washed by the rain and wiped by the sunbeam; it is warm freshness. The gardens and the meadows, having water at their roots and sunshine in their flowers, become vases of incense, and exhale all their perfumes at once. All these laugh, sing, and proffer themselves. We feel sweet intoxication. Spring is a provisional paradise; sunshine helps to make man patient.


On the 6th of June, 1832, towards eleven o'clock in the morning, the Luxembourg, solitary and unpeopled, was delightful. The quincunxes and the parterres projected themselves into the light in balms and dazzlings. The branches, wild with the noonday brilliance, seemed seeking to embrace each other. There was in the sycamores a chattering of linnets, the sparrows were jubilant, the woodpeckers climbed up the horse-chestnuts, tapping with their beaks the wrinkles in the bark.

The flower beds accepted the legitimate royalty of the lilies; the most august of perfumes is that which comes from whiteness. You inhaled the spicy odour of the pinks. The old rooks of Marie de' Medici were amorous in the great trees. The sun gilded, empurpled, and kindled the tulips, which are nothing more nor less than all varieties of flame made flowers. All about the tulip beds whirled the bees, sparks from these flame-flowers. All was grace and gaiety, even the coming rain; that old offender, by whom the honeysuckles and the lilies of the valley would profit, produced no disquiet; the swallows flew low, charming menace. He who was there breathed happiness; life was sweet; all this nature exhaled candour, help, assistance, paternity, caress, dawn. The thoughts which fell from the sky were as soft as the child's little hand which you kiss.

The statues under the trees, bare and white, had robes of shade torn by light; these goddesses were all tattered by the sunshine; it hung from them in shreds on all sides. Around the great basin, the earth was already so dry as to be almost baked. There was wind enough to raise here and there little emeutes of sand. A few yellow leaves, relics of the last autumn, chased one another joyously, and seemed to be playing the gamin [scamp].

The abundance of light was inexpressibly comforting. Life, sap, warmth, odour, overflowed; you felt beneath creation the enormity of its source; in all these breezes saturated with love, in this coming and going of reflections and reverberations, in this prodigious expenditure of rays, in this indefinite outlay of fluid gold, you felt the prodigality of the inexhaustible; and behind this splendour, as behind a curtain of flame, you caught a glimpse of God, the millionaire of stars.

Thanks to the sand, there was not a trace of mud; thanks to the rain, there was not a speck of dust. The bouquets had just been washed; all the velvets, all the satins, all the enamels, all the golds, which spring from the earth in the form of flowers, were irreproachable. This magnificence was tidy. The great silence of happy nature filled the garden. A celestial silence compatible with a thousand melodies, cooings of nests, hummings of swarms, palpitations of the wind. All the harmony of the season was accomplished in a graceful whole; the entrances and exits of spring took place in the desired order; the lilacs ended, the jessamines began; some flowers were belated, some insects in advance; the vanguard of the red butterflies of June fraternised with the rearguard of the white butterflies of May. The plane-trees were getting a new skin. The breeze scooped out waves in the magnificent vastness of the horse-chestnuts. It was resplendent. A veteran of the adjoining barracks, looking through the grating, said: "There is spring under arms, and in full dress."

All nature was breakfasting; creation was at table; it was the hour; the great blue cloth was spread in the sky, and the great green cloth over the earth; the sun shone a giorno. God was serving up the universal repast. Every creature had its food or its fodder. The ringdove found hempseed, the chaffinch found millet, the goldfinch found chickweed, the redbreast found worms, the bee found flowers, the fly found worms, the grossbeak found flies. They ate one another a little, to be sure, which is the mystery of evil mingled with good; but not an animal had an empty stomach.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, trans. Charles E. Wilbour, (New York: Random House/Modern Library), 1023-1026.

Personal Note: Still starved for time, I'm hoping to have the promised post up sometime next week.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The More the Merrier

I'm taking a summer course, which has me pretty busy and still working on a "real" post, but in the meantime, you might appreciate this incisive piece on recent proposals on immigration:

Se Puede Get Two Years Tax-Free! by Ann Coulter.

I hope to publish soon on "The Religion of Star Trek." Stay tuned.