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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Ball (an NBCC award finalist for Bright Earth) enthusiastically demonstrates how the application of the laws of modern physics to the social sciences can greatly enrich our understanding of the laws of human behavior: we can, he says, make predictions about society without negating the individual's free will. He opens his lucid and compelling study with an account of Thomas Hobbes's mechanistic political philosophy and shows how Adam Smith, Kant, Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill expanded on Hobbes's scientific but anti-utopian theories of government and society. Ball notes a return to such a scientific view of the social sciences in the past two decades, and he examines the application of physical laws to economics, politics, even the inevitable synchronization of a theater audience's applause. First, he exhaustively details the development of key concepts in contemporary physics, such as self-organization, phase transitions, flocking behavior, chaos, bifurcation points, preferential attachment networks and evolutionary game theory. Next, he shows how social scientists apply these concepts to the study of human organization. Ball's primary assertion is that we must attend to the relationship between global phenomena and local actions. In other words, noticing the impact of individual decisions on laws and institutions is more worthwhile than trying to predict the behavior of individuals (as Ball's discussion of the logic of voting habits makes all too clear). Ball's carefully argued disagreements with conventional economic theory make for particularly engaging reading. Nonspecialist readers who enjoy a steep learning curve will relish the thought-provoking discussions Ball provides. Photos, illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In this wide-ranging investigation of pioneering attempts to explain social behavior by applying formulas borrowed from physics, Ball explains how maverick social theorists are now using discoveries about molecular motion and crystal formation to predict the behavior of various human groups, including crowds of soccer fans and clusters of pedestrians. Ball acknowledges that past "political arithmeticians" have often dehumanized their subjects by adopting mechanistic assumptions about individual psychology and have sometimes legitimated totalitarian rulers by giving them a putatively scientific charter. But Ball's numerous detailed examples of the new social physics show how statistical models from physics can yield highly reliable predictions for large-group outcomes without abridging the unpredictable freedom of individual choice. These same examples teach that a consistent physics of society yields not an ideological straitjacket stipulating how people should act but rather a detailed portrait of how people do act. Because the new social physics can help managers and policy makers in dozens of fields, this accessibly written book will attract a very diverse audience. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
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Philip Ball is obviously a very experienced writer. This book - the very first (but definitely not the last)I read from him - is essential for everyone who is interested in the problems of today's world. Since he covers wide range of subjects, the reader can obtain information about seemingly unconnected subjects and put a larger picture together. The greatest advantage of this book is that the reader can learn a lot about very different things without the need of shopping around for books specialized in the matter in question. Each chapter goes into depths easily understandable by laymen with providing all necessary information.
A great book, the opinion of the Economist summarizes it the best: "Critical Mass is an intellectual roller-coaster".
Joseph Feredoes, AustraliaCritical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another
I found this a very interesting read and I appreciated that the author does not breathlessly hype the models, but explains the reasoning behind each and details the results, where they work and sometimes where they fail.
In some chapters (e.g., "On the road") I would argue that at best, all Critical Mass is doing is importing names from physics to describe similar appearing phenomena in our macro world. However, as the great Richard P. Feynman once said: "simply knowing the name of something is not knowledge". To me at least, there should have been more discussion on experimentation to back up the assertions that the similar appearing phenomena are in fact the same thing. Then it would truly illustrate something deeper. Again, to borrow from Feynman using his famous license plate analogy, if you have already observed the results and then develop a theory it is not science.
I could also have done without some of the condescending comments on the some of the great men that came before that apparently disagreed with the author's politics. For example, when discussing Adam Smith's theories on economics (Rhythms of the Marketplace), the book belabors his theories (e.g., page 180 "...even on its own term's Smith's economic theory was too simplistic to cover the whole story..." or page 184 "...Smith does not endorse the grinding poverty implicit in his words...") In contrast, the author is positively gushing when in the same chapter he describes Karl Marx's theories as "...the most influential of `scientific' economic theories in the nineteenth century..." (page 183) and "Marx's economic vision contained the crucial concept of a market that was potentially unsteady and to oscillate between boom and bust..." (page 186).
Just one man's opinion.
Most recent customer reviews
I enjoyed how the author managed to link social science to physics...Read more