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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374281250
ISBN-10: 0374281254
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Editorial Reviews

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.
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From Booklist

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374281254
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281250
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Alwyn Scott on April 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Readers of "Critical Mass" by Philip Ball will learn many new concepts and ideas from a skilled science writer with a doctorate in physics. His book opens with brief historical account that weaves the political confusion that engulfed Britain in the seventeenth century into early developments of science, but it is with the work of Thomas Hobbes that the author is particularly concerned. Although others had imagined ideal societies - Plato's "Republic", Thomas More's "Utopia", and Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" come to mind - Hobbes attempted to deduce the laws of society from basic postulates in the manner that Isaac Newton had recently managed to explain planetary motion. In other words, Hobbes sought to establish a "physics of society" which is also the aim of Ball's book.

Sensitive to charges of "arrogance", Ball asserts that his work is "not an attempt to prescribe systems of control and governance, still less to bolster with scientific reasoning prejudices about how society ought to be run." Rather he would help us to understand how "patterns of behavior emerge - and patterns undoubtedly do emerge - from the statistical melée of many individuals doing their own idiosyncratic thing." Thus he uses the tools that have recently been developed in nonlinear science to understand collective social behavior. To this end, the historical introduction is followed by a discussion of the concept of probability and the corresponding growth of statistical physics that developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The general reader who would understand these important ideas will benefit from the early chapters which clearly expound the notion of a phase change (think of boiling water or melting ice).
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Format: Hardcover
This is a sometimes dense, often rambling and always interesting book about the history of science, the history of social philosophy and many points of congruence between the two, from how traffic jams happen to how communities self-organize. Author Philip Ball seems to include almost every notable physical scientist since Sir Isaac Newton as he traces how key scientific theories have influenced or been influenced by the speculations of economists and political scientists. Anyone whose acquaintance with science is minimal, but whose curiosity is deep, will find that reading this book is something like floating down a river that is a sometimes windy, sometimes swampy, sometimes roiling stream of discoveries, ideas, broken hypotheses and curious characters. There are two small flaws. First, the author identifies almost every scientist who ever worked on a problem remotely related to the book's subject and sometimes he does not clear the path through the thicket of names and experiments. And, second, in a social science discussion toward the end, Ball permits his political biases to color his story with occasional, apparently heartfelt, denunciations of right-leaning politicians. These quibbles aside, we say buy this book and enjoy an intriguing raft ride through interesting intellectual waters.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My feeling on Critical Mass is that it is a mixed bag. When Philip Ball discusses physics his prose is, to borrow a United Kingdom phrase, "spot on" (I particularly liked his description of entropy). However, when he attempts to extend these descriptions to the social sciences, he sometimes (in this reviewer's opinion) simplifies the line between cause and effect as well as exaggerates foibles of those that came before him.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is an excellent historical look at how scientists and social scientists have attempted to measure,analyze and discuss the effects and causes of group interactions,be they the interactions of atomic particles or speculators operating on the New York stock exchange.The author provides a superb overview of herd effects,cascades, and other types of crowd effects,as well as a good discussion of how economists have attempted to model the interactive effects of crowd behavior.Readers who are interested in this topic will find a much more detailed discussion in"The Wisdom of Crowds",by J Surowiecki(2004).John Maynard Keynes and Benoit Mandelbrot are both given appropriate recognition for their pathbreaking contributions in this area.Ball recognizes,as did Keynes and Boltzmann before him,the faddish nature of much of the social sciences , economics in particular ,in attempting to mimic mathematical physics in its approach to the use of formal mathematical methods.In many cases this leads to fads which emphasize the mere use of the technique,irrespective of any quantifiable scientific results.Ball points out that the overuse of the normal(Gaussian)probability distribution among economists is an attempt to obtain the self ordering and equilibrating structure of gas particle models within the human domain even if there is no empirical support for such a distribution.Here both Pareto,Zipf,and Mandelbrot receive credit.
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