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A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down Paperback – February 28, 2006


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (February 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465038298
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465038299
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #773,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"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"

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Customer Reviews

You may find yourself putting the book down just to prolong the pleasure of reading it.
Charles E. Nydorf
It also seems like the book runs out of steam on its main argument, and the last several chapters feel tacked on and unnecessary.
Geoffrey Engelstein
This is one of the best popular books on physics I have ever read and I highly recommend it.
Tim Josling

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Giordano Bruno on January 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
... 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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108 of 124 people found the following review helpful By Geoffrey Engelstein on May 8, 2005
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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64 of 73 people found the following review helpful 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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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By J. Martin on August 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
A Different Universe is a condensed matter physicist's answer to the stack of popular works high energy physicists have been writing since the 1990s promising us that once they get to that final theory just over the horizon, the rest is chemistry. These books are notorious for their arrogance, condescension, and bluster. It is valuable to have the other perspective available in an accessible form. It turns out, however, that arrogance, condescension, and bluster are no more palatable coming from a condensed matter physicist than they are coming from a high energy physicist.

Laughlin's argument is essentially the same as the one Phil Anderson made in an article entitled "More Is Different" (Science 177 (1972): 393-396). Namely, he believes that fundamental physical insight can occur at any level of complexity, and that the laws governing higher-level phenomena are compatible with, but not predictable from, the laws governing lower-level phenomena. This debate between reduction and emergence has crucial relevance for how science is structured in a society that spends buckets of money on it. Laughlin's argument deserves a broad hearing, so it is disappointing that this expression of it is so inarticulate.

I'm rating this book poorly, not because I disagree with the point it makes, but because, by conforming to the same pattern established by reductionist treatises, it does little to advance that view. By expressing himself just as dogmatically as his opponents do, Laughlin does his argument a disservice.

My other complaint is that Laughlin frequently lapses into anecdotes and parables to explain his points, many of which obfuscate, rather than clarify.
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