Forum Scientiarum

Unseld Lectures 2008

Prof. Dr. Robert P. Laughlin, Physics, Stanford:
"The Age of Emergence"

May 6th, 2008, 8 p.m., Audimax, University of Tuebingen

Is it possible to express the rules of genetic transmission in physical language with same reliability? Do properties of solids emerge spontaneously when the number of atoms in clusters increases? In scientific discussions, the term "Emergence" is repeatedly associated with the appearance of system features on higher levels of organisation which cannot be predicted by reference to the known components on lower levels. In opposition to the concept of emergence, the methodological program of reductionism aims to describe systems entirely from the nature of their elements. In its strongest form, reductionism deems the knowledge of elementary particles and general laws of physics to be sufficient for a complete description of everything that exists. However, if this were the case, then any science besides physics would be merely auxiliary.

However, in many cases reductionalistic explanations are impossible while referring to collective phenomena. When several iron atoms are lying next to one another, they align themselves like a compass needle – this is not reductionalistically explainable. Therefore, Robert B. Laughlin, this year’s main lecturer of the Unseld Lectures, calls for a self-restraint of the construction of theories in physics. He criticises his academic discipline for continuously attempting to transfer laws from the macroscopical to any other level. According to Laughlin, the laws of nature are emerging from collective self-organisation. The laws of physics do not precede the order of nature, but rather are emergent themselves.

Because of Laughlin's works, the relationship between emergence and reductionism should be reconsidered. The Unseld Lecture 2008 were integrated by a series of lectures into the continuing interdisciplinary work on this topic.