Puzzled and captivated faces were scattered throughout the
lecture hall last night. No, it wasn’t an organic chemistry
lecture, but rather a Nobel prize-winning professor explaining his
radical concept, breaking the scientific norm.
Stanford University physics Prof. Robert Laughlin lectured to a
packed room in East Hall during the Fourth Annual Ford Motor
Company Distinguished Lecture in Physics.
Laughlin is currently a physics Nobel laureate, which is an
honor bestowed upon the top experts in the world for certain
academic fields. Last year only three scientists were named Nobel
laureates for physics.
In 1998, Laughlin shared the Nobel Prize with two colleagues for
his work on high-temperature superconductivity. He has since moved
his research to a new subject, collective matter.
The lecture hall was mostly filled with students and members of
the physics department, along with people from other natural
science departments and retired Ford employees.
In his talk “The Emergent Age,” Laughlin said he
believes there is much more to physics than most scientists
realize. Scientists have been focusing too much on studying
individual particles, when in fact larger bodies can better explain
physical laws, he said.
“The task that all of us have as scientists to expand the
frontier has just begun. … We misidentify where this frontier
is,” he said.
During the talk Laughlin discussed emergent theory, which he
said is based on the idea that the physical properties of a complex
body emerge from the organization of the body’s many
particles, rather than by the characteristics of the individual
For example, he said the rigidity of a pen is determined by the
organization of all its atoms, instead of by the structure of each
of the atoms.
Laughlin’s explained why emergent theory should preside
over the more common reductionist view, which holds that
understanding a complex body requires examining its individual
ingredients. According to emergent theory, particles of matter
acting together can generate physical laws spontaneously.
Some members of the audience contested Laughlin’s idea of
emergence as the new foundation of physics. “Most of us are
not used to thinking about the universe in this way,” said
Mira Franke, an applied physics doctoral student.
Some people in the audience said they believe Laughlin’s
concept of emergence is valid, while others remained skeptical.
“I find this approach difficult to accept. However, I
intend to look into it further. My perception of the universe is
very different (from Laughlin’s). I think in terms of the
particle content of the universe,” Physics Prof. Katherine
Laughlin, a condensed matter theorist, received many questions
at the end of his lecture. The audience probed his theory further,
trying to gain the maximum amount of information from the
Physics graduate student David Oros said he believed
Laughlin’s theory is radical. “The goal of science has
historically been to reduce everything to its simplest components.
What he is suggesting is something that you cannot prove.
There’s no experiment that can prove the emergence
theory,” Oros said.
While there may be no practical application to his theory,
Laughlin said his theory will revolutionize many laws of physics.
“Physics deals with the emergence theory. Scientists discover
laws. They do not build things. Engineers do that,” he