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A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down Hardcover – March 1, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 52 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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"I started reading, and cliche though it be I couldn't stop... A Different Universe should be required reading for physics researchers, teachers and students..." New Scientist "An important, brain-tickling new book.' New York Times" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (March 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046503828X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465038282
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #282,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. Bill Jones on July 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Anyone interested in the direction of physical science should read this book. Laughlin opens his heart in an attempt to open the minds of his target audience: students and the laity. Unhampered by `professional correctness', the Nobel Prize-winning physicist lobs a stream of barbed-wit grenades at the dogmas of 20th-century physics. This book may irritate readers who believe that quantum field theory or multidimensional descendents of string theory are on the threshold of providing a `Theory of Everything'. Conversely, it will reward readers who are interested in the conceptual advances of the last few decades that are both testable and important to 21st-century technology. Laughlin's writing style is straightforward, laced with personal insight and a delightful humor; "A Different Universe" is fun to read.

Laughlin's major thesis is that `Reductionism', the highly successful paradigm of 20th-century physics, is approaching the end of its usefulness. Exact, highly reproducible experimental results have led to a dichotomy: the reductionist view - we can learn sufficient detail about the primitive physical parts to theoretically deduce the experimental result; or the emergentist view - there is a principle of physical organization, which is rarely deducible from lower-level components, that causes the collective effect. Only the latter view is practical now. Laughlin states in the final paragraph, "We live not at the end of discovery but at the end of Reductionism, a time in which the false ideology of human mastery of all things through microscopics is being swept away by events and reason." This opinion is not inconsistent with his statement in the preface, "I do not wish to impugn reductionism so much as establish its proper place in the grand scheme of things.
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... and deliberately provocative, as several other reviewers failed to realize. If I were a good deal younger, I'd describe Prof. Laughlin's humor as "snarky", but since that adjective isn't yet in my vocabulary I'll have to go with "sm*rt-*ssed". It's perhaps a sort of humor that tickles the funny-bones of science nerds most, rather like 'viola jokes' amongst us musicians, and the anecdotes almost certainly offend those readers who find they are the butts of Laughlin's humor. He is unrepentantly scornful of those he perceives as fools. But how can you resist his description of String Theory: "a textbook case of a Deceitful Turkey, a beautiful set of ideas that will always remain just out of reach. Far from a wonderful technological hope for tomorrow, it is instead the tragic consequence of an obsolete belief system..." Yeah! I happen to think of String Theory, if I have to, as Sudoku for Metaphysicians.

The unifying theme of A Different Universe is that physical sciences have "stepped firmly out of the age of reductionism into the age of emergence." I won't attempt to parse that statement; it would be like giving away the end of a suspense novel.

There are also moments of homiletic wisdom to be found, sauced with humor. In his chapter about nuclear science vs. applied nuclear engineering (think Hiroshima), Laughlin writes: "... self deception has consequences. Most of the time the effect is not as dire as warfare, but simply a degradation of the quality of life. These degradations include such happy institutions as road rage, divorce court, and excessively long faculty meetings." Make of that sermon what you will! It's not unamusing to find a Nobel-winning tenured professor at Stanford still picturing himself as Peck's Bad Boy or James Dean.
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Format: Hardcover
Unfortunately, A Different Universe has some fascinating ideas that are undermined by poor writing. Mr. McLaughlin's ideas about emergence vs reductionism are very thought-provoking and I think worthy of an extended essay or article, but he has problems enlarging them to book length, slim as this book is. This book is in desperate need of a good editor. Anecdotes that are intended to buttress his arguments have little or no relevence, and many comparisons to the everyday are way too verbose -- we get the point after one or two sentences, he carries on for ten or twelve.

It also seems like the book runs out of steam on its main argument, and the last several chapters feel tacked on and unnecessary.

I think the ideas presented in this book are important, and you may wish to read (or skim) this book to absorb them. Just be prepared to overlook the presentation.
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Format: Hardcover
This book will probably offend you because of its *seemingly* flippant dismissal of various current popular theories such as string theory. The author comes across as arrogant, and the book is quite self-indulgently edited.

The good news is that it made clear to me, in a way that had never happened before, the depth of the problems facing naive reductionism. He shows how in many cases reductionist results have a high degree of bogosity. None of the solid states of water were predicted in advance, but after they were discovered "explanations" were readily found.

He convinced me that current "fundamental" physics is almost certainly no such thing and is almost certainly a set of emergent phenomena based on at least one more layer of physics.

The author's arrogance is tempered by the fact that he is quite happy to make fun of himself when this helps to make his point. Which is, in part, that the world is full of things we really don't understand and we need to be a bit more humble about it and accept the need to understand things on their own terms.

I would suggest that if you have read this book and did not have your understanding of physics and science generally radically changed, it might be worth reading it again and more carefully.

This is one of the best popular books on physics I have ever read and I highly recommend it.
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