Sunday, April 5, 2020

Philip W. Anderson, RIP

1977 physics Nobel Prize winner Philip Warren Anderson has died at a Princeton nursing home at age 96, cause not reported.  He received his prize for work in "condensed matter physics," a label he coined.  His work, done at Bell Labs (later he was at Princeton U.), had relevance for the functioning of circuits in computers and other important uses.  He also did important work on antiferromagnetism, the Higgs particle, spin glassses, and several other topics, with several effects named for him ("Anderson localization effcct," "Higgs-Andrson effect").  I am not going to get into the detailed physics of any of these, but he is of interest here because he has had interactions with econoimists as well, with his work on spin glasses in particular important for work in econophysics..

Let me note now a broader debate he was involved with, that over "reductionism" in physics, particularly over particle physics, although this is a debate that goes far beyond physics into many other disciplines, certainly including economics. Some would say his position was "holistic," although he apparently preferred "anti-reductionist."  The reductionist position in particle physics argued that the key to understanding reality is to understand the functioning of its micro-level parts, in this case individual particles and the fundamental parts they are made of.  A major debater with him on this was the late (also Nobelist) Murray Gell-Mann of Caltech, who introduced the word "quark" into particle physics from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake for a fundamental sub-particle, and also drew from Buddhism the phrase "Eightfold Way" to describe the emerging consensus view on particle physics.

To further this discussion I shall quote two paragraphs from the obituary for him by Martin Weil that appeared in today's Washington Post that followed mention of this debate (although it did not name Gell-Mann or anybody else besides Anderson himself):

"In his career, he became identified with a phrase he developed: 'More is different." A play on other expressions involving the significance of 'more," it represented a view of physical reality that emphasized the unknown possibilities that were offered by complex systems of particles.

In this, he was regarded as an apostle of complexity, of ths sort of behavior that has come to be studiied in chaos theory, in shich an array of particles, each understood individually, can in the aggregate produce behavior of an unpredictable nature."

This is then followed in the obit by a a disccussion of the specific work that won him his Nobel, the "Anderson localization effect," which I shall not describe in any detail here.

The final paragraph of the abit is the following:

"His interst in compleixty and his aversion to reductionism led him to to help found the Santa Fe Instiitute, with its concern for interdisciplinary work."

That is what especially interests me, as that is a favorite place of mine, although I never met him.

What is not in the obit but I think is important is who the other main co-founders were, two fellow Nobelists.  One was Gell-Mann, mentioned above, Anderson's debating partner in the reductionism debate in particle physics.  This indicates at least an acknowledgement by Gell-Mann that Anderson was at least partly right, and Gell-Mann would go on to be a major participant at SFI (no, I never met him either, although my brother-in-law, Michael Werner, knew him at Caltech).

The third co-founder, also a Nobelist and no longer among the living, was someone also associated with a potentially reductionist view of reality, general equilibrium theory in economics.  That was Kenneth Arrow, whom I did know.  As with Gell-Mann, this also was a case of someone associated with a strongly reductionist view recognizing the importance of the antii-reductionist view.  All of these now dead great intellectuals will be sorely missed.

In any case, for now, RIP Philip Anderson.

Barkley Rosser


Anonymous said...

Really nice memory.

Kaleberg said...

If you look at Anderson's work in physics, a lot of it involved amazing, hard to predict stuff that happened at the aggregate level. Emergence is a powerful idea in physics. Unfortunately, like many physicists, Anderson tended to take a mystical view of emergent phenomena. The problem with that is that there are two kinds of emergent phenomena, those that can be derived from their constituents and the kind no one has ever discovered an example of.

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