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Where does physical law come from?
As our experimental understanding of nature has matured, we have come to realize just how artificial the distinction is between fundamental physical law—something that “just is”—and other kinds of physical law that “emerge” through self-organization. Everyday examples of the latter include material rigidity, magnetism, and super-fluidity, but there are countless others. Things become more troubling, however, when we realize that the vacuum of space-time also has symptoms of being emergent. “Fundamental” quantities such as the electron charge defocus and change value as you examine the vacuum at smaller and smaller length scales. Unification of forces becomes mathematically indistinguishable from “quantum phase transitions” of the vacuum. Heats of formation and other collective effects in the vacuum become implicated in inflationary theories of the universe. We are increasingly realizing that finding law – a quantitative relationship among measured quantities that is always true – is not eh same thing as finding fundamental truth. Indeed, when you measure only at “low” energies you simply cannot tell the difference between a law that emerges and a law that “just is”.
Professor Laughlin is a theorist with interests ranging from hard-core engineering to cosmology. He is an expert in semiconductors (Nobel Prize 1998) and has also worked on plasma and nuclear physics issues related to fusion and nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers. His technical work at the moment focuses on “correlated-electron” phenomenology – working backward from experimental properties of materials to infer the presence (or not) of new kinds of quantum self-organization. He recently proposed that all Mott insulators – including the notorious doped ones that exhibit high-temperature superconductivity – are plagued by a new kind of subsidiary order called “orbital antiferromagnetism” that is difficult to detect directly. He is also the author of A Different Universe, a lay-accessible book explaining emergent law.
- A.B., 1972, University of California at Berkeley
- Ph.D. , 1979, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Research Physicist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 1982-present
- Associate Professor of Physics, Stanford University, 1985-89
- Professor of Physics, 1989-present
- IBM Fellow , 1976-78
- E.O. Lawrence Award for Physics, 1985
- Oliver E. Buckley Prize, 1986
- Eastman Kodak Lecturer, University of Rochester, 1989
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1990
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Member of the National Academy of Sciences
- Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professorship in the School of Humanities and Sciences, 1992-present
- Co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics, 1998