This writer reviews Robert Laughlin's "A Different Universe (Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down". I've recommended this book a few times and even highlighted a recent announcement of a talk given by Laughlin on this topic. It's not that this book is outstanding or full of thrilling accounts. It is just that it is covering an area that most people are not aware of, or are totally ignorant on. It presents a different perspective than those of high energy/particle physicists that seem to get a lot more publicity. Yet, a significant portion of practicing physicists, especially those in Condensed matter, disagree with such a view of our world, and this view hasn't been heard much. That is why this book is a must read.
It is interesting that this writer, at the end of the review, wrote this:
Twice he uses the phrase "intellectually mugged" to describe how students and even his own son sometimes go away from discussions with him feeling battered. He even admits to once setting a physics exam question so difficult that not one student could solve it. What did that prove?
He's referring to Laughlin's "test" in which he gave his first year graduate student a problem to "derive" superconductivity starting with the interactions of each individual particles. What did that prove? It proves to the student in the most direct fashion that superconductivity cannot be derived that way. When taken apart at the individual interactions level, you do not get superconductivity because this is a collective, emergent phenomenon. Reducing it to the individual, reductionist level will NEVER tell you that at the many-body level, you such a phenomenon will emerge. Students who tried to do this and fail will learn very quickly the message being sent here. Now, not knowing the circumstances of the exam, we can only make speculation here. But if I were the one giving the exam, it would certainly be a question that is "open-ended", meaning it doesn't have a right answer. I can certainly see myself giving credit for what was done by the student, even if he/she didn't get to solve it, simply because there is no solution! So no, this isn't as "cruel" or pointless as one would imagine. And having met Laughlin a few times, I can't believe that he would not have done something similar here.