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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