A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

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9780465038282: A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

Not since Richard Feynman has a Nobel Prize-winning physicist written with as much panache as Robert Laughlin does in this revelatory and essential book. Laughlin proposes nothing less than a new way of understanding fundamental laws of science. In this age of superstring theories and Big-Bang cosmology, we're used to thinking of the unknown as being impossibly distant from our everyday lives. The edges of science, we're told, lie in the first nanofraction of a second of the Universe's existence, or else in realms so small that they can't be glimpsed even by the most sophisticated experimental techniques. But we haven't reached the end of science, Laughlin argues-only the end of reductionist thinking. If we consider the world of emergent properties instead, suddenly the deepest mysteries are as close as the nearest ice cube or grain of salt. And he goes farther: the most fundamental laws of physics-such as Newton's laws of motion and quantum mechanics -are in fact emergent. They are properties of large assemblages of matter, and when their exactness is examined too closely, it vanishes into nothing.A Different Universe takes us into a universe where the vacuum of space has to be considered a kind of solid matter, where sound has quantized particles just like those of light, where there are many phases of matter, not just three, and where metal resembles a liquid while superfluid helium is more like a solid. It is a universe teeming with natural phenomena still to be discovered. This is a truly mind-altering book that shows readers a surprising, exquisitely beautiful and mysterious new world.

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About the Author:

Robert Laughlin is the Robert M. and Anne Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1985. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

From Publishers Weekly:

In the search for a "theory of everything," scientists scrutinize ever-smaller components of the universe. String theory postulates units so minuscule that researchers won't have the technology to detect them for decades. Stanford physics professor Laughlin, awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics, argues that smaller is not necessarily better. He proposes turning our attention instead to emerging properties of large agglomerations of matter. For instance, chaos theory has been all the rage of late with its speculations about the "butterfly effect," but understanding how individual streams of air combine to form a tornado is almost impossible. It's easier and more efficient, says Laughlin, to study the tornado. Laws and theories follow from collective behavior, not the other way around, and if we try to analyze things too closely, we risk not understanding how they work on a macro level. In many cases, the whole exhibits properties that can't be explained by the behavior of its parts. As Laughlin points out, we use computers and internal combustion engines every day, but scientists don't totally understand why all of their parts work the way they do. Many interesting and challenging observations make this book worthwhile reading, but Laughlin doesn't bring his own parts together to form a coherent whole. Yet many science buffs and young scientists will find this a worthwhile challenge to business as usual in physics. B&w illus. (Mar.)
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