Nobel Laureates Against Nanotechnology

This small but distinguished organisation has gained another two members. The theoretical condensed matter physicist Robert Laughlin, in his new book A Different Universe: reinventing physics from the bottom down, has a rather scathing assessment of nanotechnology, with which Philip Anderson (who is himself a Nobel Laureate and a giant of theoretical physics), reviewing the book in Nature(subscription required), concurs. Unlike Richard Smalley, Laughlin’s criticism is directed at the academic version of nanotechnology, rather than the Drexlerian version, but adherents of the latter shouldn’t feel too smug because Laughlin’s criticism applies with even more force to their vision. He blames the seductive power of reductionist belief for the delusion: “The idea that nanoscale objects ought to be controllable is so compelling it blinds a person to the overwhelming evidence that they cannot be”.

Nanotechnologists aren’t the only people singled out for Laughlin’s scorn. Other targets include quantum computing, string theory (“the tragic consequence of an obsolete belief system”) and most of modern biology (“an endless and unimaginably expensive quagmire of bad experiments”). But underneath all the iconoclasm and attitude (and personally I blame Richard Feynman for making all American theoretical physicists want to come across like rock stars), is a very serious message.

Laughlin’s argument is that reductionism should be superseded as the ruling ideology of science by the idea of emergence. To quote Anderson “The central theme of the book is the triumph of emergence over reductionism: that large objects such as ourselves are the product of principles of organization and of collective behaviour that cannot in any meaningful sense be reduced to the behaviour of our elementary constituents.” The origin of this idea is Anderson himself, in a widely quoted article from 1971 – More is different. In this view, the idea that physics can find a “Theory of Everything” is fundamentally wrong-headed. Chemistry isn’t simply the application of quantum mechanics, and biology is not simply reducible to chemistry; the organisation principles that underlie, say, the laws of genetics, are just as important as the properties of the things being organised.

Anderson’s views on emergence aren’t as widely known as they should be, in a world dominated by popular science books on string theory and “the search for the God particle”. But they have been influential; an intervention by Anderson is credited or blamed by many people for killing off the Superconducting Supercollider project, and he is one of the founding fathers of the field of complexity. Laughlin explicitly acknowledges his debt to Anderson, but he holds to a particularly strong version of emergence; it isn’t just that there are difficulties in practise in deriving higher level laws of organisation from the laws describing the interactions of their parts. Because the organisational principles themselves are more important than the detailed nature of the interactions between the things being organised, the reductionist program is wrong in principle, and there’s no sense in which the laws of quantum electrodynamics are more fundamental than the laws of genetics (in fact, Laughlin argues on the basis of the strong analogies between QED and condensed matter field theory that QED itself is probably emergent). To my (philosophically untrained) eye, this seems to put Laughlin’s position quite close to that of the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright. There’s some irony in this, because Cartwright’s book The Dappled World was bitterly criticised by Anderson himself.

This takes us a long way from nanoscience and nanotechnology. It’s not that Laughlin believes that the field is unimportant; in fact he describes the place where nanoscale physics and biology meets as being the current frontier of science. But it’s a place that will only be understood in terms of emergent properties. Some of these, like self-assembly, are starting to be understood, but many others are not. But what is clear is that the reductionist approach of trying to impose simplicity where it doesn’t exist in nature simply won’t work.

6 thoughts on “Nobel Laureates Against Nanotechnology”

  1. this kind of discussion can get dangerously close to semantics. i havent read the book, but as far as i can tell, emergence is just a word (with a bit of fad added). examining a phenomenon at the right level of abstraction is pretty much a common sense obvious thing to do. i dont think reductionism is at odds with that at all. in fact, any “failure” of reductionism is just matter of practical applicability, not a matter of principle.

    as to nanotech i dont thinks theres any point being philosophical about it. it boils down to what can (eg biology) and what cant be done. reminds of that discussion where we all agreed that the theory-experiment feedback loop had to be closed before further waste of text.



    ah and i would humbly suggest that you make a note whenever posting links that require a subscription! (nature article)

  2. David, I’m not going to try and convince you that your view is wrong; read the book and see what you think. I, myself, think there is more to emergence than just a word but then I’m a condensed matter physicist whose education has been much influenced by people who think like Anderson (particularly Sam Edwards and Pierre Gilles de Gennes).

    Note about the link requiring a subscription added…

  3. “certain phenomena cannot be understood meaningfully in terms of the lower level details”

    correct me if im wrong, but isnt this obvious?

    or is this not the central theme behind ’emergence’?

    maybe im missing the point, i havent read the book..

  4. Who knows what’s obvious? Rather than try and explain it myself, I’ll directly quote Philip Anderson on his favourite example:
    We are so accustomed to the rigidity of solid bodies‚Äî the idea, for instance, that when we move one end of a ruler, the other end moves the same distance‚Äîthat it is hard to realize that such action at a distance is not built into the laws of nature …. It is strictly a consequence of the fact that the energy is minimized when symmetry is broken in the same way throughout the sample: the phase and angle variables want to be uniform, so that the orientation and position of the lattice is the same everywhere…. To break down the rigidity completely, we must supply the condensation energy of a macroscopic piece of the sample, which is very large. We are so accustomed to this rigidity property that we don’t accept its almost miraculous nature, that it is an “emergent property” not contained in the simple laws of physics, although it is a consequence of them.

    To which I will add that although rigidity is in a sense a consequence of the details of the force law that holds between atoms in the solid, many other conceivable force laws would produce the same result, because rigidity is a consequence of a broken symmetry, a general principle that doesn’t depend at all on the details of the nature of the interaction. You could imagine another universe in which atoms interacted by quite different rules, but in which the phenomenon of rigidity still occurred.

  5. Wow!

    Nanotech is Philosophy! And I though it was just engineering.

    ‘Emergence’. This word seems to me to be indefinable. The quote Mr Jones gives above about ‘rigidity of solid bodies’ by Mr Anderson could be thought of as an excellent example of ‘reductionism’!

    My point is that we would not speak of ‚Äòsymmetry’, if it were not for reductionist science!

    A better idea is that of representations! This has two very nice consequences.

    1. First it realises that the reductionism / emergence dichotomy is due to using Standard English to speak about concepts, which requires abstract mathematics.

    2. By replacing emergence with representations, everybody is happy. Mr Jones can believe that one can view the world as systems; others can keep to their reductionist viewpoint, as each is just an equally valid representation of the world.

    Now, regarding Robert Laughlin criticism of Nanotech. My opinion is that a mixture of self assembled molecules joined together to make interesting self catalysed macromolecules would be very interesting indeed. Clearly this is possible, as nature has got there first!!! The real question is how to automate this process.

    If the above described Nanotech, then we would have extraordinary materials, which would lead to the space age (space elevators anyone?)

    Also, uses in biology as molecular markers are obvious. This should be remarkable enough to give Nanotech street cred. Now controlling atoms … well I would leave that till 2150 say!

    An Amateur mathematician

  6. thanks for the explanation, i think i did have the right idea about emergence after all.

    my opinion is that reductionism vs “emergentism” is a false debate. i dont think the two are incompatible. when i say that emergence is “just a word” im just trying to note that theres nothing fundamentally new to it, this is a well known (and imho, straightforward) idea in new clothes.


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