The music of emergence

I just stumbled upon a beautiful site, The Music of the Quantum, whose (apparent) main theme is a peculiar composition by Jaz Coleman. It was commissioned by the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter (ICAM) as a public outreach event, first performed in New York at Columbia University in 2003. The event was performed by the Sporcl quintet from Prague, and narrated by Robert Laughlin and Piers Coleman (yes, it was that 1998 Nobel laureate Laughlin, for his theory of the fractional quantum Hall effect). According to the site,

The piece was written to bring out, musically, some of the themes of the quantum emergent world. The melody of this unique piece is carried between a violin and an accordion, the idea being to capture the duality of quantum mechanics between these two contrasting instruments.

Besides hearing to the (pretty good, to my taste) music, you can see three nicely done video clips of its perfomance, and an interview with Coleman. But that’s not all.

As it happens, the site has a sort of double agenda, and is full of information on what one may call the emergent viewpoint of physics, championed (among many others) by Laughlin, the ICAM and friends. I first read more or less seriously about this viewpoint a few months ago, via Laughlin’s very interesting “A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down”, which was a bit of an eye opener to me. As a theoretical physicist, i’ve had a reductionist upbringing. When i was in high school, a dear maths prof of mine’s used to tell me that i was what Einstein called (in this classic article) a tamed metaphysicist:

I believe that every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist, no matter how pure a “positivist” he may fancy himself. The metaphysicist believes that the logically simple is also the real. The tamed metaphysicist believes that not all that is logically simple is embodied in experienced reality, but that the totality of all sensory experience can be “comprehended” on the basis of a conceptual system built on premises of great simplicity. The skeptic will say that this is a “miracle creed.”

… and i felt i really was (and probably still am) one of those beasts. From that stance to reductionism there’s just a tiny step: to me, physics was the pursue of ultimate causes, the art of reducing complex systems to its constituents and explaining everything in terms of the interactions between those constituents. A very naive philosophy, if you like, but one that is reinforced by many science books and academic curricula, and which is implicit in much of the research in fundamental physics even these days (for instance, Steven Weinberg’s “Dreams of a Final Theory” is a perfect exponent of this ideology). In my experience, there are still many theoretical physicists that look at colleagues in experimental physics, biology or chemistry over their shoulders, feeling like some sort of priesthood in search of the ultimate truth. But, hopefully, maybe i’m just overreacting, as usual.

Anyway, people like Laughlin have a very different worldview, and are all for explaining natural phenomena in terms of emergent behaviours, that is, properties that appear, as a consequence of organizational principles, when great numbers of, say, atoms are put together. Take, for instance, metals: according to this view, there’s nothing in a gold atom that explains its macroscopic qualities, which appear only when you put many of these little pieces together and let them interact. The laws according to which these swarms of subsystems organize themselves are not to be viewed as a direct consequence of their structure, and in fact the claim is that the behaviours come from organizational laws that are independent of the detailed structure of those constituents (or is, at least, compatible with many different ones). The website contains several (short) clips where these ICAM guys give a far better explanation of these and similar ideas. I find them very refreshing and a good antidote against narrow-mindedness. Which does not mean, by the way, that one has to accept all this emergent worldview uncritically. Laughlin likes to call reductionism an ideology, but, to be fair, reading his book now and then i felt he was close to making emergency an ideology too (in the sense that, according to him, everything seems to be explainable in terms of emergentism)! It must be the reductionist in me.

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2 Responses to “The music of emergence”

  1. Markk Says:

    This is a good look at “A Different Universe” a book with parts of it that ought to be expanded to the general audience. To me the key point is that we are missing fundamental rules of nature – bypassing them in the search for what we think is ultimate. I think it is an important question of whether, say, the rules governing the behavior of gold metal are deduceable -at all- from fundmental quantum field theory. That idea that these rules of behavior are not very dependent on the details of lower level rules, is maybe a clue. That is fascinating.

    In a metaphor to computer languages, we may be zooming down to look at the machine code and missing a bunch of constraints and relationships at the High level language that make a lot of the possibilities at the machine language level irrelevant. Given the discussions about funding of Physics in the U.S. right now I think this stuff is important.

  2. jao Says:

    Markk, absolutely! As a good and proven reductionist, i remember having a hard time at first getting the point of emergentism: i still thought that, somehow, the underlying microscopic structure was the cause of the macroscopic behaviour. They key point, to me, was understanding that the latter is compatible with a variety of microscopic rules (or, as you say, not very dependent on them). I find your computer language methapor specially enlightenning in this regard. Thanks!

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