Computers have been responsible for immeasurable progress in physics. But contrary to assumptions, experimentalists are the heavy users.

Our experimentalist colleagues get to organize massive data streams into the beautiful false-color pictures we see on the covers of Science and Nature. For us theorists the computer is more of a mixed blessing. Many see it as our substitute; our role is to take the (mostly) known laws of physics and calculate their consequences by letting computers do all the work.

For most systems of interest, however, the basic laws of physics, though not incorrect, are inadequate. The reason is emergence, which says that when a system becomes large and complex enough, its constituents self-organize into arrangements that one could never deduce a priori, even though the laws of physics are obeyed. The obvious example is life, but emergence also acts on a more primitive level. Even the quantum theory of what should be the simplest of all crystalline solids, helium, is still a bit of a mystery.

In an attempt to cope with such problems, some of my colleagues try to do what I said they couldn’t: follow all the atoms or electrons as they interact using massive computer simulations. Unfortunately, the number of atoms and the length of time they can be followed are negligible compared with even the tiniest speck of real matter. In addition, they use various assumptions and tricks that tend to predetermine the outcome.

The prestige attached to computers and their erudite gimmicks impresses almost everyone, but especially the simulators. They often believe they have proved that a system—like the little crystal of solid helium—can’t possibly behave the way experiments show, therefore there’s something dubious about the experiments, and not the simulations. Of course, to the casual observer computer simulations are far more impressive than old-fashioned logic and common sense. But we must remember that a simulation, even if correct, can’t really prove anything. Computers will always have limits of error in trying to model the world. In the end logic and pure science, independent of the computer, still get us closest to nature, even without the pretty pictures.

Philip Anderson is a professor at Princeton University and was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977.

Originally published July 9, 2008

Tags data design technology

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM