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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  662 ratings  ·  71 reviews
Is there a 'physics of society'? Philip Ball's investigation into human nature ranges from Hobbes and Adam Smith to modern work on traffic flow and market trading, across economics, sociology and psychology. Ball shows how much of human behaviour we can understand when we cease trying to predict and analyse the behaviour of individuals and look to the impact of hundreds, t ...more
Paperback, 656 pages
Published February 3rd 2005 by Arrow (first published July 17th 2003)
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(I finished this book a few months ago, so it's not totally fresh in my mind. But I see it on Ilya's to-read list, so thought I should warn him before it's too late.)

I'm very mixed about this book. It discusses the application of statistical physics and computer simulations to problems of social science, like traffic jams, segregation, economic behavior, etc. The book stays close to the academic research, and so reads less like a management book than, say The Tipping Point.

Its strengths are the
This book is a gem. Covering topics from history, physics, economics, chemistry, the internet, ethics, &c. Ball follows one idea throughout all of these subjects: can physical laws be translated into social laws. He also wants to know if is it worth our while not just to formulate them but to draw not only practical but also ethical decisions from the information we gain.

He first reduces free will to the most basic set of variables and turns humans into automata and shows us how individual a
Critical Mass brings together a collection of interesting studies on social statistics, and places them in the context of economic and political history.

Naturally, the examples picked for the book are ones which apply broadly to a range of phenomena, and are fairly pared-down, made accessible to the non-specialist reader. I was impressed at how well these case studies were integrated into the text, and liked that he pointed out their limitations and underlying assumptions, and overall simplicit
Eric Rautenbach
Philip Ball, in Critical Mass, explores the possibility of systems always following specific patterns, even to the point where an outcome can be accurately predicted. Such hypotheses can be adequately proven in mathematical models or in chemical reaction up to the point where it becomes an accepted theorem or fact. In this case I found that Philip Ball fails to present sufficient evidence to bring his ideas any further than just being unproven hypotheses.

The message I got from this book is that
I know it is not good to review a book you are in the middle of, but who says you can't :-) What I am enjoying about this book is understanding the substructure of mass behavior. So far it has allowed me to gain a grip on how things can be predetermined on the one hand (the predictability of mass behavior), yet allow for unique and creative individuality within those bounds (free will). True, it is not your fast read "Romance Novel" with a luscious, enticing bare chested Fabian on the front - bu ...more
Critical Mass falls on the same shelf as those wunderkinds of pop-economics: Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, Blink and Emergence. Critical Mass a rebuttal to those eager metaphors. Ball goes through a history of science and its efforts to apply those discoveries to society. Great info.
Steven Williams
Overall, the book was okay. I did, however, find the section on networks very fascinating. There was a section that described a Bacon number, which is how far away an actor is from acting directly with Kevin Bacon. If he/she acted with him, then his/her number would be 1. If she/he acted with someone who acted with Kevin Bacon her/his number would be 2.
and so on down the line. The whole time I was reading this I couldn't help thinking of the Erdos number which is the same scheme only it was wit
As a student (not a very good one, arguably :) of social sciences, I've been more than a little disturbed by what I've seen as trying to "prescribe" how people "must" behave using statistical inferences. This book finally made me understand that social science has nothing to do with prescription, or even with figuring out what is going on in individual human minds. Rather, there are two questions: a) How people tend to behave in certain circumstances b) If they behave that way, what happens.

Awesome achievement, physics meets economics and still readable.
''The U.S. economist Herbert Simon points out that an absence of central planning does not necessarily mean that all cities are poorly 'designed.' On the contrary, they are (or at any rate, they once were) often remarkably effective in arranging for goods to be transported, for land to be apportioned between residential, business, and manufacturing districts, and for a lot of activity to be fitted into a small area: 'I retain vivid memories of the astonishment and disbelief expressed by the arch ...more
Quizá sea una de mis obsesiones. Los sistemas complejos y el caos. Van de la mano. Nadie los ha entendido completamente, mucho menos los ha descrito. Su descubrimiento fue totalmente fortuito, y por un metereólogo, un no científico, un describidor de fenómenos naturales, un pronosticador pobre y limitado a unos cuantos días, impreciso y encarcelado. Ball también usa las herramientoas del caos y de la simplejidad y las usa en su limitado escenario. Pero es una descripción rica en anécdotas. Todav ...more
This is the brief introduction of social physics. The author describes the historical background of the birth of social physics, and many models and case studies that shows how a simple model predicts and gives insights into human collective behaviors. He deals with a wide range of concepts, methodologies and theories: phase transitions, critical states, Ising model, power-law distribution, agent-based model, network theory, and game theory. Such models in social physics provide great analogies ...more
Here Ball describes how various statistical models from physics can be used to investigate different sociological areas of interest - from crowd flow and the growth of cities to the way that countries aligned themselves in the run-up to WWII and the wisdom or otherwise of Mutually Assured Destruction. "How intriguing!", you might be thinking, as I did when I first found the book, but if I may shamelessly nab Ball's theme for a moment, I should caution that I did find my level of interest peaking ...more
I wanted to like this book. I like the premise. And it started out okay. I never knew that there were states of pressure/temperature where matter has an equal chance of branching into either liquid or gas, or liquid or solid. Several chapters kept harping on this same theme. There are actually two states of change, critical states and some other name I don't remember (too bad "states" doesn't appear in the Index, nor "critical", so good luck trying to look it up.) There's some kind of difference ...more
A physics-inspired science of society still seems a bit loopy and unlikely to pan out, at least as a cohesive theory... but this book does collect a bunch of interesting approaches from physics, engineering, economics, computer modeling, math, sociology, etc. Some of it would have been super helpful a year earlier when I was still working in a transportation research lab.

Other interesting bits include computer simulation experiments that, while proving nothing, can at least give some indication
How are we (readers) affected by Ball's book ? Such question (although not this particular one) is what the book addresses. From how bacterial colonies form and financial markets crash to how traffic evolves and human behavior is affected by its surrounding, Ball passes over countless of historical facts & scientific details (explained in plain English) showing how many scientists, sociologists, economists & others (even physicists) have been, for ages trying to put down the building blo ...more
This book is about applying the methods of physics and mathematics to sociology. There are no equations in this book, and it is easy to follow--but the discussion is unnecessarily verbose as a result. Some equations could have kept the discussion more concise, and perhaps easier to understand, also.

The book introduces some of the concepts of statistical thermodynamics and phase transitions. The most interesting aspect of this book is the analogies between many-particle interactions and the "tipp
A discussion of non-equilibrium phenomena and the characteristics of systems composed of large numbers of interacting 'agents'; based on findings in physics and physical chemistry. Physical phenomena reveal that characteristic properties emerge from complex systems that can be accurately modeled with tools of modern mathematics; these same mathematical tools also seem to model selected aspects of human society when our actions are considered in large aggregates. This is a math-lite discussion, s ...more
Ed Terrell
One of my best reads of the year! Critical Mass is an examination of how individual local interactions give rise to collective behavior that is not predictable and that is influenced by such things as tipping points, paradigm shifts, small world networks, swarming behavior, and game theory.

This challenging, and exciting foray dips into physics (phase changes of liquids and solids, critical points, bizarre behavior of superconductors, and statistical mechanics) via historical perspectives and re
Jakub Podgajniak
Incredibly well written book with interesting ideas and written in a way that even someone who has little understanding in math or marketing would understand perfectly. A definitely recommended read for anyone who still doesn't understand how the modern world reached its current situation.
I would not like this book assigned to me as a textbook, either for physics nor sociology, though it does attempt to use the former as an explanation, somehow, of the latter. It's not that I can't follow it, just that it spends a lot of time- too much- thickly explaining the theories and conclusions of the author. Halfway through I am about to give up, since it's taken at least that long to ascertain its purpose! Boring. I guess if you were excited by quantum mechanics etc it might have an appea ...more
Evan B
Read book. Experience facts. Feel fulfilled. Feel empty. Become an alien to your own thoughts. Drown them in thick, viscous, factual goo. Mention fact from book in conversation. Feel smart. Slowly forget fact over time. Feel dumb. Feel sad.

Appreciate sheer utilitarian beauty of facts. Make connections with other facts you know. Feel smarter. Become friends with facts. Appreciate how much facts improve the quality of your life. Sit alone and think about how wonderful facts are. See holes in facts
Philip Ball uses Thomas Hobbes's theory of 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. Mr. Ball notes a return to such a scientific view of the social sciences and he examines the application of physical laws to economics and politics.

However, it is strange to see how he makes the two mostly unrelated concepts seem very related. For example, how a city grow
I read this entire book, I enjoyed it. If you want to read a book of nonfiction, that will interest you, and expose you to new stories and concepts of "how" the world works, this would be a good one to try out.
Bridging the 'hard' and 'soft' sciences is not an easy proposition. Ball gives a reasonable attempt, drawing from mathematical models in physics, chemistry and biology to explain aggregate human behavior. While I like his logic, part of me wants to rebel against what appears to be too pat an explanation for complex behavior. His explanations why collective behavior are not the sum of aggregate behavior are compelling. The book drags in places where he seems to labor a little too hard to prove hi ...more
Sai Prasanna
Critical Mass is one book which focuses on the application of statistics on social phenomena,encompassing an eclectic mix of examples to show how the law of large numbers could be applied to predict mass behavior.Philip Ball's exposition on Phase Transitions in the mathematical modelling of traffic is a must read.However, the author lays stress only on the successes of such modelling attempts.For novice readers like me who have just started to dig into statistics, a balanced treatise with the fa ...more
"Winner of the Aventis Prize for Science Books". It begins with a great romp through the discoveries of how gases, liquids, and solids work, and (I'm about half-way through) arrives at instantaneous phase changes (e.g., gas to liquid) as a model for complex human behaviours. Applying physics to societies and human behaviours, in other words.

Interesting, and worth reading to learn a little more about the math and science. Unsure as yet of the validity of the application to people, however. Some l
Oct 08, 2008 Nathan rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Nonsexy physicists who yearn to be sexy, Sociologists, Socialists, Socrates
A good book, but a heavy read. I find myself comparing situations to physical states and critical points a lot now.

But what's most perplexing is a review of the book on the back cover by Elissa Schappell from Vanity Fair: "Philip Ball makes physics sexy again in Critical Mass."

What? I'm not sure if Elissa and I read the same book because:

A) The physics in this book was not sexy,
B) In fact, I don't think physics was ever sexy, and
C) Assuming physics was ever sexy, not even Justin Timberlake coul
Nov 25, 2008 Jim rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: no one
This one didn't do anything for me. I read it because Bill Bryson gave it a nice endorsment on the cover of the book, but it didn't deliver my hopes. It is parts sociology, physics, statistics, chemistry, mathmatics, philosophy, history, biography, and some other fields too. The sub title is "One Thing Leads to Another" but to it lead to a disjointed mish-mash that seemed a waste of time. So i skimmed through most of it looking for the point where it settled down and made some sense to me. But i ...more
Andrea Hickman Walker
I've always been interested in statistics. I like to see how many different ways the same details can be interpreted. I like the idea of making models that show how things work - particularly complex things that you need a computer to model. But this book actually makes it interesting. It takes statistics (specifically statistical physics and associated models) and applies it to everyday life. Of course things are still open to interpretation, and the author is very clear about that, but the imp ...more
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Philip Ball (born 1962) is an English science writer. He holds a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University. He was an editor for the journal Nature for over 10 years. He now writes a regular column in Chemistry World. Ball's most-popular book is the 2004 Critical Mass: How One Things Leads to Another, winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. It e ...more
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