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Robert Laughlin


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”.