For Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin, the writing life beckoned

L.A. Cicero Robert B. Laughlin

Robert Laughlin has written three general interest books since he won the Nobel physics prize in 1998.

The Nobel Prize is often seen as the pinnacle of a scientist's career, often coming later in life. But not for Stanford's Robert Laughlin, who won the prize for physics a decade ago, at age 47, and has more recently used his Nobel fame to express his creative side and launch a career in popular writing. His latest book, The Crime of Reason: And the Closing of the Scientific Mind, was released last fall.

"I am trying this experiment with writing," said Laughlin, a hefty man with a commanding presence and wild frock of white hair. "Wouldn't it be cool if I was remembered as being a writer, rather than a Nobelist?" He erupted into a roaring laugh. "But really, I'd like to be remembered as alive!"

Laughlin, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Physics, joined Stanford in 1984, after stints in the Army, Bell Labs and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 1998, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Horst Stormer of Columbia University and Daniel Tsui of Princeton for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect, which provided new insights into quantum theory and the structure of the universe.

At the time, much to Laughlin's amusement, people inquired about the real world applications of his work. To which he responded: It will only impact your life if you are concerned with the nature of the universe. His books, on the other hand, are written for ordinary citizens, to open minds and inform their daily lives.

"Bob is brilliant as hell," said Debbie Berebichez, one of his former students. "He is a visionary who's committed to finding the truth and can move a lot of opinions in the world."

Laughlin, 58, is married with two sons. He sees good physics as an artistic process. The same creative and critical thinking that led to his Nobel Prize forms the foundation of his writing for a general audience. And ultimately, it was winning the prize that allowed him to take this step.

"When you win the Nobel Prize, the public will listen to you," said Laughlin, who did his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley and went on to receive a PhD at MIT, studying the mechanical properties of glass.

His first book, A Different Universe, which has been published in nine languages, tries to reinvent physics from the bottom down. The book, published in 2005, is considered a challenge to business as usual and has been suggested as required reading for all physics researchers, teachers and students. The casual reader should know that his mother, Peggy Laughlin, admitted she found the physics hard to follow. On the other hand, she highly recommends his second book, The Crime of Reason, for everyone.

The Crime of Reason focuses on the provocative premise of knowledge restriction in an age of seemingly open access. Laughlin makes a passionate plea against government and industrial restriction to intellectual property and knowledge, using examples from nuclear physics, biotechnology and patent law.

"Laughlin, a Nobel laureate in physics, paints a troubling picture of a society in which the only information that is truly valuable in dollars and cents is controlled by a small number of individuals," Publishers Weekly said in its review.

To Laughlin, the sequestration of both private and government knowledge was an inevitable side effect of the information age. "It was the ugly dark side of this new computer era," he said. "But there is an implicit human rights issue buried in it." The problem, he said, lies in the inability of people to freely educate themselves, because learning becomes theft. "The entire premise of education as equalizing doesn't work anymore."

Acquiring knowledge is important to Laughlin. "He's the only one I know who has read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, as bedtime reading," said William Perry, Laughlin's father-in-law and a former college president. "His breadth of knowledge is incredible." (Though Laughlin admits he's probably only read about half of the full series.)

Right now, the P-volume rests on his bedside. His next book is about energy and climate change, so he spends his nights reading the paleobotany section, followed by the paleontology section. "I need to make the idea of geological time real for people," he said. "I like to learn things and encyclopedias are filled with neat stuff."

His love of encyclopedias stretches back to a childhood spent in the Central California farming town of Visalia. His father, a lawyer, provoked in-depth discussion of controversial subjects at dinnertime and taught the family to respect ideas and knowledge.

"I always knew he would do great things," mused his mom. "He would think of things other kids wouldn't." His schoolboy experiments were not without danger, however. Like the time he almost blew off his fingers by subjecting Clorox to a myriad of chemistry experiments. Or the time he hooked his train set up to his house's fuse box. Laughlin laughs looking back on those experiences. "What I did was reasonably safe," he said. "I needed some power, so I took some."

In 2006, between A Different Universe and The Crime of Reason, Laughlin produced another book, Looking for a Hero, that chronicled his controversial two-year stint as the first foreign president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

For many, Laughlin's wildly creative side stands out. At dinner parties with colleagues, he's been known to hit the piano with impromptu self-composed stormy sonatas. And at any given faculty meeting he might be found impishly drawing cartoons while business drones on, especially on Fridays.

Among some of this colleagues he is known as a provocateur and a controversial physicist. "I've taken risks I probably shouldn't have taken and that's just what I am going to do," Laughlin said. "The best part of science always happens at the margins. It's the stuff you shouldn't be doing." For that, others see him as a leader.

Leader or provocateur, cartoonist or composer, writer or Nobel Prize winner. Perhaps he'll be remembered primarily as a Nobelist, perhaps even as a writer, but without a doubt, he will be remembered as alive.

Cassandra Brooks is a former science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.