Monday, November 28, 2016

Polanyi and Emergence before "More is Different"

The common narrative in physics is that the limitations of reductionism, the importance of emergence, and the stratification of scientific fields and concepts were first highlighted in 1972,  by P.W. Anderson in a classic article, "More is Different" published in Science. Anderson nicely used broken symmetry as an example of an organising principle that occurs at one strata and as a result of the thermodynamic limit.

The article was based on lectures Anderson gave in 1967.
The article actually does not seem to contain the word "emergence". He talks about new properties "arising".

I recently learned how similar ideas about emergence and the stratification of fields was enunciated earlier by Michael Polanyi, in The Tacit Dimension, published in 1966, based on his 1962 Terry Lectures at Yale.
The book contains a chapter entitled "Emergence".

Here is a quote:
you cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive the grammar of language from its vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose. ... it is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars.
Much of the chapter focuses on biology and the inadequacy of genetic reductionism. These ideas were expanded in a paper, "Life's irreducible structure," published in Science in 1968.

I recently learned about Polanyi's contribution from
The concept of emergence in social sciences: its history and importance 
G.M. Hodgson

Here is a bit of random background.

Before turning to philosophy, Polanyi worked very successfully in Physical Chemistry. Some readers will know him for his contributions to reaction rate theory, the transition state, a diabatic state description of proton transfer, the LEPS potential energy surface based on valence bond theory, ...

Polanyi was the Ph.D. advisor of Eugene Wigner. Melvin Calvin, a postdoc with Polanyi, and his son, John Polanyi, went on to win Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.

Google Scholar lists "The Tacit Dimension" with almost 25,000 citations.
The book was recently republished with a new foreword by Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics.


  1. Hi Ross,

    Spotted a mistake. Michael Polanyi wasn't Eugene Wigner's student - he was actually Wigner's advisor! Wigner of course went on to win the Nobel prize in physics.

    Polaniy's other famous student is Melvin Calvin, of the Calvin cycle fame, who indeed got a Nobel in chemistry.

  2. Thanks for the helpful correction.
    Actually, from Wikipedia it looks like Calvin was a postdoc with Polanyi.
    I have modified the post.

  3. Reading the Wikipedia page on Polanyi, it's interesting to note his analogy between the "free market economy" and non-centrally-planned scientific research.
    Especially in view of what some members of the US House are advocating with respect to what research the NSF funds.

  4. In Wigner's autobiography, he says this about Polanyi: "His finest gift was to encourage my work in physics, and this he did with all of his very great heart. In all my life, I have never known anyone who used encouragement as skillfully as Polanyi. He was truly an artist of praise".