Field of Science

Book review: Philip Anderson's "More and Different"

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philip Warren Anderson is one of those rare species - a scientist who is not only world-class in his own field but who seems capable of saying something interesting about virtually every topic under the sun. His career at Bell Labs overlapped with the lab's most illustrious period and apart from his prizewinning work in solid-state physics, Anderson has made groundbreaking contributions to at least two other diverse fields - particle physics (he was actually the first one to suggest the existence of the Higgs boson) and the epistemology of science. In this book he holds forth on a wide variety of subjects ranging from postmodernism to superconductivity. The chapters consist of book reviews, commemorative essays, transcripts of talks, opinion pieces and a variety of other writings over the past five decades. In every chapter there are at least a few rather deep statements which deserve close scrutiny.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. The first part details Anderson's views on the history and philosophy of science including his own field - solid-state physics. The second part talks about Anderson's reminiscences and thoughts on his scientific peers, mostly in the form of book reviews that he has written for various magazines and newspapers. The third part deals with science policy and politics and the fourth is dedicated to "attempts" at popularizing science.

Some of the chapters are full of scientific details and can be best appreciated by physicists but there's also a lot of fodder for the layman in here. A running thread through several essays is Anderson's criticism of ultra-reductionism in science which is reflected in the title of the book, "More and Different". Anderson's basic viewpoint is that more is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from less. In 1972 he made a splash by discussing in an article in Science magazine how "higher-level" sciences are based on their own fundamental laws which cannot be reduced to physics. In the book he details this philosophy through several examples from physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. He does not deny the great value of reductionism in the development of modern science but he incisively explores its limits.

Other chapters contain critiques of the latest fads in physics including string theory. Anderson bemoans string theory's lack of connection to concrete experiment and its failure to predict unique, robust solutions. He makes it clear that string theory is really mathematics and that it fails to adhere to the tried and tested philosophy of science which has been successful for almost five hundred years. Other chapters have insightful commentary on the role of mathematics in physics, Bayesian probability and physics at Bell Labs. A particularly amusing essay critiquing the current funding situation in the United States proposes a hypothetical alternative history of quantum mechanics in the US, where scientific pioneers like Dirac and Heisenberg may not have been able to do groundbreaking research because of the publish-or-perish environment and the dominance of the old guard.

There's also some valuable material in here about the sociology of science. This is exemplified by an especially insightful and detailed chapter on scientific fraud where Anderson explores the reasons why some scientists commit fraud and others don't expose it as widely as they should. In Anderson's opinion the most valuable method to expose fraud is to ask whether it destroys what he calls the "seamless web of science" - the existing framework of fundamental laws and principles that allow relatively little room for revolutionary breakthroughs on a regular basis. In many cases the web's integrity is clearly not consistent with the new finding, and the rare case where the web can subsume the new discovery and still stay intact leads us into genuinely new scientific territory. He also takes scientists to task for failing to point out the destruction of this seamless web by apparently far-reaching but fundamentally flawed new discoveries. In other chapters Anderson also comes down hard on the postmodernism distortion of science, critiquing such philosophers as Nancy Cartwright and upholding the views of debunkers like Alan Sokal. He also has some valuable commentary on science policy, especially on Star Wars and missile defense. Other writers have written much more detailed critiques of such programs, but Anderson succinctly demonstrates the limitations of the concept using commonsense thinking (The bottom line: Decoys can easily foil the system and a marginal improvement by the offense will result in a vastly increased cost for the defense).

Finally, the book contains mini sketches of some of Anderson's peers who happened to be some of the great scientific minds of the twentieth century. Anderson reviews books by and about Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Stuart Kauffman, Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, John Bardeen and William Shockley among others. I happen to agree with him that books by scientists like Hawking, Penrose and Greene, while fascinating to read, paint a rather biased picture of physics and science. For one thing, they usually oversell the whole reductionist methodology in their constant drive to advertise the "Theory of Everything". But more importantly, they make it sound like particle physics and cosmology are the only games in town worth thinking about and that everything else in physics is done on the periphery. This is just not true. As Anderson makes it clear, there are lots of fields of physics including condensed matter physics, biophysics and non-linear dynamics which contain questions as exciting, fundamental and research-worthy as anything else in science. As just one example, classical physics was considered a staid old backwater of the physics world until chaos burst upon the scene. It's also clear, as was the case with chaos, that some of the most exciting advances will come from non-physicists. There are foundational phenomena and rich dividends to be mined from the intersection of physics with other fields in the twenty-first century.

Anderson's book might precisely be the kind of writing ignored by the public because they are too taken with the Hawkings, Greenes and Randalls. To those folks this volume would be an essential and healthy antidote. There's something in there for everyone, and it makes it clear that science still presents infinite horizons on every level. After all, more is different.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't know he wrote this. Thanks. I'll pick it up. He's somewhat cantankerous, particularly about high temperature superconductivity, flagellating everyone who doesn't agree with his theoryt of it (which is nearly everyone). But he's always worth reading.



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