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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

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Are there "natural laws" that govern the ways in which humans behave and organize themselves, just as there are physical laws that govern the motions of atoms and planets? Unlikely as it may seem, such laws now seem to be emerging from attempts to bring the tools and concepts of physics into the social sciences. These new discoveries are part of an old tradition. In the seventeenth century the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, dismayed by the impending civil war in England, decided that he would work out what kind of government was needed for a stable society. His solution sparked a new way of thinking about human behavior in looking for the "scientific" rules of society.

Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, and John Stuart Mill pursued this idea from different political perspectives. But these philosophers lacked the tools that modern physics can now bring to bear on the matter. Philip Ball shows how, by using these tools, we can understand many aspects of mass human behavior. Once we recognize that we do not make most of our decisions in isolation but are affected by what others decide, we can start to discern a surprising and perhaps even disturbing predictability in our laws, institutions, and customs.

Lively and compelling, Critical Mass is the first book to bring these new ideas together and to show how they fit within the broader historical context of a rational search for better ways to live.

528 pages, Paperback

First published July 17, 2003

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About the author

Philip Ball

62 books357 followers
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 examines a wide range of topics including the business cycle, random walks, phase transitions, bifurcation theory, traffic flow, Zipf's law, Small world phenomenon, catastrophe theory, the Prisoner's dilemma. The overall theme is one of applying modern mathematical models to social and economic phenomena.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 116 reviews
Profile Image for Jin.
637 reviews117 followers
February 7, 2021
This definitely felt like work while reading, haha. I'd give the book something between 3-4 stars.
In general, it gives a very thorough introduction and good review on science models loaded with history, quotations and facts. Even though the book was interesting enough for me to go on, I ended up skimming a chapter or two (or more...), because at some point the story telling felt prosaic. The book definitely gives a lot of information and if you are interested in research and sciences, and how it's used to describe society and our environment, you may like this one.
12 reviews2 followers
June 1, 2008
(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 strengths of the underlying research. Social sciences don't always model interactions quite right and physics and agent-based computer simulations sometimes have useful things to say. A lot of social science seems stuck with mean-field models (the physics approximation in which one atom responds to the average magnetic field of all the other atoms in the sample, as opposed to a more realistic model where neighbors are more strongly coupled than distant atoms) and incorporating network effects is an important new development.

But the research also has weaknesses and the biggest flaw of the book is the credulous approach it takes towards the research it covers. Let's say there's some simulation based on a toy model that reproduces behavior reminiscent of the business cycle, or whatever. Yes, that's interesting, but it doesn't mean we now know how the business cycle works! Similarly with power laws. At first people were really excited about them (and this book echoes some of that excitement when it talks about 'self-organized criticality' and 'small-world networks' and other stuff I've forgotten), but as the new theory found itself, like string theory, unable to generate useful predictions, skepticism grew. Here is a negative but optimistic recent editorial in the journal Internet Mathematics that gives some perspective.

And so I think the weaknesses of the research become the weaknesses of the book. This is especially since the weakness of a line of research is often the most interesting place to investigate, either so the problem can be fixed or so we can decide to abandon the line of research. The book would have done well to ask social scientists who are critical of econophysics to comment, and then to ask the physicists to reply. Instead, it doesn't mention the fact that a lot of this physics-based social science work is pretty marginal, and that it's ignored not only because economists don't know physics. For an example of what a debate about model validity looks like within economics, see the papers by Rodrik and Banerjee from this recent conference.

Anyway, to sum up, this book did a good job of making me think. Unfortunately, many of the thoughts were hostile.
Profile Image for Will.
25 reviews4 followers
August 26, 2008
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 actions can be generalized to an amazing degree. After which he shows us how the same principals can be used to show us how undesirable society could be. And builds us back up into free thinking humans with the task of making decisions for ourselves.

Not only is the book thrilling from an all-round aspect of understanding - broadening horizons and making you think. It shows even lets you get into a feeling of excitement and adventure by first showing the advancements of a theory and its promises, then continuing to show how these are really only short-sighted observations and how much further you need to go to obtain an even greater degree of understanding.

this has to be one of the better popular science books that I have read in a couple of years. Absolutely fantastic... I even gave myself extra time just to savor it.
Profile Image for Xing Chen.
Author 1 book86 followers
June 23, 2010
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 simplicity.

However, not being familiar with much of the original literature or the extent to which widely-cited theories have been elaborated on to date, I found myself constantly asking, ‘what results would the data yield if one analysed an additional aspect, or added another level of complexity, or tried an alternative strategy..?’ The book is richly sourced and acts as an excellent starting point for beginners.

What I particularly enjoyed was the way principles in physics (thermodynamics, magnetism) were linked to social phenomena that depend on the nature of interactions between a large number of people, in ways I’d never considered. Certain concepts were already familiar- emergence and development of traffic jams, characteristics of small world networks, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Tit for Tat. The details about how laws of thermodynamics can be applied to human society were revelations.

Also extremely enjoyed his inclusion of political history and philosophy (areas that I’ve only learnt about in a piecemeal fashion, rather unsystematically). He introduces ideas from Hobbes, Condorcet, Quetelet, Adam Smith, among many others. He describes the work of physicists in fields such as probability, statistics, particle motion (Poisson, Gauss, Maxwell).

I think this quote from the book sums up its content nicely- Ball is commenting on the scope of ‘classical’ thermodynamics: ‘it seeks to account for change, but it can’t actually say anything about the process of change itself. It can only provide prescriptions for the start and end points, and falls silent on the question of what happens in between.’ It is these in-between connections that Critical Mass sketches out.

Quote from Kant’s essay, Idea of a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view’:
'Individual men, and even whole nations, little think, while they are pursuing their own purposes…that they are advancing under the guidance of a purpose of nature which is unknown to them.'

As heat is applied to a magnet, the orderly alignment of magnetic spins is disrupted, and magnetic fields of individual atoms cancel each other out on average, making the piece of metal non-magnetic. The temperature at which this occurs (the Curie point) is sharp and well-defined, but the magnet does not switch abruptly from being a strong magnet to being non-magnetic. Instead, its strength (its ‘magnetization’) falls steadily towards zero as the Curie point is approached. This is a genuine phase transition, but one that is different from evaporation, condensation, melting or freezing. Phase transitions that happen as a system passes through a critical point are called critical phase (or ‘second-order’) phase transitions, while ones that involve sudden jumps in a property of the system, such as density, are called first-order phase transitions.

The electrical resistance of various metals does not decline smoothly as the temperature approaches absolute zero. Instead it drops abruptly to zero. The metal becomes a superconductor, able to carry a current that is totally unimpeded by electrical resistance. The change to a superconducting state has all the characteristics of a critical phase transition: the resistance plunges swiftly to zero as the superconducting transition temperature is approached, just as the magnetization of iron dips to zero close to its Curie point. If liquid helium is cooled even further below its boiling point, at a little over 2 degrees above absolute zero it develops extremely bizarre properties. It loses all viscosity, and once it begins to flow it never stops. This form of liquid helium will even crawl up the side and out of a container. It becomes a so-called superfluid.

‘Universality’- the concept that for some processes in the world, the details do not matter. Two wholly different kinds of systems can display the same pattern of behaviour. Phase transitions, for example, appear to be generic phenomena- they happen in the same way for a wide range of apparently different systems.

Metastable states can exist if a system is prepared in the right way, but they are constantly at risk of collapsing into the more stable state. The point at which the metastable state transitions from being possible to impossible is known as the spinodal point.
Profile Image for Ferio.
615 reviews
March 20, 2017
Cuando me recomendaron este libro no tenía idea de a qué me iba a enfrentar; lo he terminado y aún no sé qué pensar porque la cabeza bulle con un montón de ideas que antes no estaban en ella y todo es confuso.

La Física en la que se basa el autor para explicar todo género de acontecimientos sociales es casi de carácter absoluto, pero la conclusión a la que llega es que todo lo que ocurre en la sociedad es relativo (¡nunca determinista!) o, lo que es más complejo, caótico. No hay cuestión mayor que el libro no aborde: la necesidad de gobiernos, las economías laissez-faire y las planificadas, la transmisión de información (en forma de conocimiento o en forma de epidemias), el flujo de personas al evacuar locales y el flujo de coches al incorporarse a las autopistas... Todo tiene paralelismos (grosso modo) con el comportamiento de los sistemas de partículas o las transiciones entre estados de la materia, y se cumple el mismo principio: si la cuestión es simple, la probabilidad de que la solución sea la esperada es alta; si la cuestión es compleja, mejor entender bien el punto de ruptura de la sublimación del agua antes de aventurarse a hacer un vaticinio.

Es, cuando menos, curioso y muy instructivo. Algunas de las disciplinas que menciona, como el Análisis de Redes Sociales (poco y mucho que ver con Facebook y Twitter), me encantan, y sus interpretaciones de las teorías clásicas de la organización social, desde las de Pyotr Kropotkin hasta las de Thomas Hobbes, son de las más lúcidas en su relativismo que he leído en tiempo; por otra parte, es que me rodeo demasiado de extremistas y exaltados de todo género en mi día a día.

Muy recomendable si hay interés por las Ciencias Puras y su posible traslación de modelos al estudio de la sociedad. Aunque dicho así, lo mismo no lo lee nadie.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,691 reviews636 followers
November 10, 2019
‘Critical Mass’ is another non-fiction book that I’ve been meaning to read for about a decade. In fact, I read the chapter on traffic behaviour in 2012 to see if it would be relevant to my PhD. It wasn't, not directly at least. Having finally read the whole thing, I think I'd have gained more from the experience in 2009. As it was, I found it rather odd and intermittently frustrating. The central thesis is broad and elastic in the extreme. Ball begins with a potted history of Western political philosophy, then leaps into physics under the broad umbrella of complexity theories. A central idea that repeatedly occurs is that of phase transition: how these occur in substances in water and also, seemingly, in human contexts like road traffic. Ball draws parallels between physical science and social science in a variety of contexts, bringing in a range of theories and methodologies that I’ve comes across or used in the past decade. In some sections he makes very sensible points; in others the content has dated considerably in the 15 years since publication; in others the analysis is reductive. Nonetheless, I found the whole thing readable enough and it does mention a great many topics that interest me: snowflake formation! Economic theory! Traffic behaviour! Utopian literature! Even the French Revolution gets name-checked, albeit in a simplistic fashion that got on my nerves (...it wasn't 'Robespierre's Terror'). On the other hand, in 2004 Ball called out derivatives as wrongly priced and high-risk due to misunderstanding of market fluctuations, which do not follow a Gaussian distribution. So kudos on predicting the financial crisis, there.

I struggled to understand the overall purpose of the book, as it covered so much ground and intersected with such a range of disciplines. Complexity is not, in itself, a specific topic. There is undoubtedly interesting material, however the whole reads now as trying to be a bit ahead of its time. Searching for physical laws in behavioural data is a mainstream idea with the advent of big data, however that data is controlled by the big tech companies and therefore largely inaccessible to researchers. Where it is used to understand behaviour by the firms that control it, the aim is profit maximisation rather than identification of behavioural laws. To generalise, machine learning with big data is a black box filled with layers of correlations. It can be used to make predictions about behaviour, but not to explain why behaviour occurs. And as Ball comments, making predictions about future fluctuations in a market then acting upon them changes the dynamic of the market, requiring further predictions to be made, etc. Oil markets are a classic example here. Fluctuations in the current price of oil occur in part due to changing expectations about the future price of oil. As he puts it, ‘The act of predicting the future (if it is taken at all seriously) is likely to change it’.

Ball certainly provides a good critique of oversimplified neoclassical economic models and Homo Economicus in chapter 9. He also explains power laws neatly in Chapter 10, which was helpful as I teach students about the 80:20 Pareto Rule in business contexts. On the other hand, chapter 14 is titled ‘The Colonisation of Culture’ yet discusses models of cultural spread that are completely ahistorical and ignore colonialism completely. Such models seem not just pointless but insulting. The assumption that a culture adopts a feature of an adjacent culture based on its similarity is a ridiculous way to look at history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, I don’t think Africa, Asia, and Oceania chose to adopt European features because of their similarity to existing cultures! Pretty sure they were aggressively conquered, their indigenous cultures suppressed, and their resources stolen. Models that assume social and cultural change always occurs ‘from the bottom up’ through the interaction of agents in grids do not seem remotely aligned with observable reality, any more than neoclassical economic models that treat technological and environmental change as exogenous (external to the economy). I remain to be convinced of the merits of agent-based modelling more generally, although I have colleagues working on it. While a complex nonlinear system can certainly emerge from a simple rules-based setup, I agree with Ball’s caveat that, ‘Some social scientists remain uneasy, suspecting that any particular agent-based model of a social phenomenon risks coming to conclusions that depend on the underlying assumptions. [...] Such models can hardly be expected to provide a sound basis for policy until we can distinguish what is contingent from what is robust.’ The current approach is to throw in as much data as possible, which can create further problems of data-cleaning, bias, and inaccurate measurement.

Another minor point that got up my nose concerned the tragedy of the commons. This concept is often stretched to infer that human being cannot manage natural resources communally without destroying them. This is obviously not the case, as in pre-capitalist times, and under capitalism in some places, doing do was and still is essential to survival. Equating common grazing land in Medieval Europe with 21st century overfishing is nonsensical. The difference is a powerful profit motive, which is not the immutable natural law that economists say it is. Managing land did not always mean exhausting it for short-term gain and the phrase 'tragedy of the commons' needs to be used with more specificity. George Monbiot has much more to say on this topic in Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics in the Age of Crisis.

The chapters on the internet and social network analysis read in 2019 as endearingly dated. Apparently, ‘it was estimated at the end of 2002 that there were around 3 billion documents then available on the WWW’. Bless. It’s quite impressive that Ball manages to explain the principles of social network analysis (which I’ve come across because a PhD student I supervise is using it) without having social media to reference. Nowadays anyone can get a developer account on twitter, download a huge file of tweets, and use R or similar software to map the network their interconnections represent. At least they could last time I checked. So chapter 16 introduces the theory well, but the application is sadly out of date. I expect there’s plenty of more recent research comparing social media user networks with yeast metabolic networks. Presumably the increasing algorithmic meddling in social media feeds to encourage ‘engagement’ has a measurable impact on this, possibly even changing the nature of such networks. (Thankfully twitter can still be forced to stop this by selecting ‘Latest Tweets’.)

More intriguing was the application of game theory principles to the trenches of the First World War, although I’m wary of simplistic applications of game theory principles. This is nonetheless an interesting point:

So the choice was simple. Either you fought each other constantly, bombarding the enemy trenches with artillery fire and deploying snipers to pick off anyone foolish enough to put their head above the parapet - while enduring the same treatment from the other side. Or you held fire on the tacit understanding that the enemy would do the same - and meanwhile you hoped to be relieved from the front before the next push came. In the one case you endured fear of sudden death at any moment; in the other you had a quiet life and some hope of going home at the end of it. [...] The fighting was, in other words, conducted on a tit-for-tat basis. Such exchanges are a lethal form of communication: they say, “We will do as we are done by.” This is at the same time both a threat and an olive branch, for it also implies that non-aggression will be greeted with the same.

The striking thing here is how unusual this situation is in history. The Western European battlelines of WWI hardly moved for years; both sides had very similar weapons and tactics; neither side was fighting in defense of a specific location, for ideology, or for survival. It was thus an even more pointless war than most, which might be what makes it more amenable to interpretation through game theory.

Chapters like this are interesting in isolation, however I remain doubtful of how well the whole book hangs together. If written 5 to 10 years later and infused with use of big data, it would be a lot more cohesive. However I do greatly respect Ball’s distrust of the deterministic social engineering that some of his examples could easily lead to:

The notion that we could ever construct a scientific ‘utopia theory’ is, then, doomed to absurdity. Certainly, a ‘physics of society’ can provide nothing of the sort. One does not build an ideal world from scientifically based traffic planning, market analysis, criminology, network design, game theory, and the gamut of other ideas discussed in this book.

Tell that to ‘smart city’ advocates. Remaining skeptical and ambivalent about the social implications of the material he presents is the only sensible choice, but one that then calls the structure of the book into question. Had ‘Critical Mass’ claimed the route to utopia is the application of physical laws to social problems, I would have rejected it out of hand. The book is more subtle than that, which makes it worth reading but does not prevent various flaws. Of the theories and examples Ball presents, though, some are manifestly more credible and useful than others. His initial discussion of the Enlightenment is thoughtful, albeit not original. The explanations of concepts from physics and maths are consistently clear and readable. I’d be wary of recommending it, as certain parts have aged badly and the whole is less relevant 15 years later. I also don’t think it needed to be quite so long.
Profile Image for Eric Rautenbach.
55 reviews
November 10, 2011
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 there is a possibility that human behaviour can be predicted collectively, in the same way that gasses can be predicted to react in specific ways under specific conditions. This is a fascinating idea, but to use modelling to predict financial markets, war outcomes and voting outcomes has never been done successfully and most of the studies and examples Philip Ball uses actually highlights this very idea of unpredictability of human behaviour.

There are some interesting historical studies and experiments in social science in the book which I found was worthwhile to read about. The points he try to make that human behaviour en-masse can become as predictable as phase transformations in material science, or variability in statistical process control, however, I did not find as convincing.

There might be some truth in the idea that collective human behaviour in a psychological sense is predictable, or even in a sociological way, but to try to convince that human behaviour can be pinned down to a mere mathematical model is to try to force that glass slipper on the ugly stepsister’s foot.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
January 30, 2011
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 "tipping points" that occur in human affairs. Whereas Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point contains many interesting examples of tipping points, this book by Philip Ball helps to explain better why they happen. He shows that whereas random phenomena often take on a Gaussian distribution, many-particle interactions take on a power law distribution. He applies these concepts to a wide array of interesting social phenomena, including crowds leaving a room, city expansion and segregation, traffic flow, the stock market, the growth and shrinking of companies, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and politics and voting.

The book begins and ends with multiple chapters about political philosophy. Maybe a single chapter would have been desirable, but I thought it was way too much, especially considering that the main theme of the books was about applying quantitative methods to sociology.

Profile Image for Alan.
21 reviews4 followers
March 29, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Víctor Gómez.
Author 1 book9 followers
February 24, 2021
El libro tarda en arrancar y a veces se hace muy largo, pero las conclusiones del final me parecieron muy interesantes.
7 reviews3 followers
January 9, 2008
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 - but there are some really great ideas made readable to a lay person interested in science's attempts at mapping and understanding human behavior.
Profile Image for Keith Crawford.
Author 6 books5 followers
March 2, 2021
The blurb purports that the book will help us understand a science of society that enables us to predict and analyse human behaviour by looking at the impact of decisions taken in large groups. Or something like that – it isn’t terribly clear. The interior is concerned with the discipline of econophysics – applying statistical physics to economics to understand how individual behaviours emerge in group outcomes, from traffic and the stock exchange to the ways in which people try to escape a burning building. Economics has striven to become more scientific for decades: in this book Ball demonstrates how that can be achieved.
There are many things I’d like to say about this book: a masterpiece; a work of extraordinary depth, breadth, and ambition; a work that successfully made me feel under-read; an important step forward in showing means by which economics can better model social behaviour. I’d like to say them because they are true.
But I find myself wondering who this book was written for? I have more degrees than any one person should have, but it took me two weeks to read Critical Mass, during which time I had to read several other articles and get advice from better qualified friends to understand what I was reading.
The book claims to be about human interaction but approximately the first 150 pages are pure statistics and physics. Ball has an annoying habit of explaining something, getting you to the point where you understand, then telling you why what you thought you understood was wrong. Basically, he’s a physicist (all of physics is like this). Critical Mass reads like an exceptionally ambitious doctoral thesis, opening with a remarkably deep literature review then provide examples of his method in action. But why read it?
Well, if you want to understand it, you’re going to have to work at it. But if you put the time and thought in, you’ll see how social change can operate like first order transitions, such as between ice, water and steam; how the critical point of change can create great instability; what it actually means for a particle to act as a wave and what this would look like if particles were people; and an actual argument for game theory as a source of hope. Most importantly Ball explains how. This was not an easy read, because the subject is very hard, and no amount of excellent writing can make statistical physics easy.
However, if you’re an economist, or a psephologist, or a particularly brave sociologist, you owe it to yourself to read this. I wouldn’t recommend this for a casual reader, but if you trade is understanding social behaviour you can’t afford to let this book pass you by.
Profile Image for Jop Wolffs.
29 reviews1 follower
March 26, 2022
A fascinating book, in particular to people interested in how scientific progress manifests. Roughly speaking, it gives an overview of how theories and models from physical sciences are applied and perform in social sciences, and its approach can be divided in two parts.
First, he gives a historic account of how ideas develop through time and a succession of thinkers, both in and outside of the scientific community, to become scientific disciplines such as thermodynamics or convictions such as the free market ideology. Seeing how these ideas grow by individual contributions and their historical context is an interesting insight into the organic nature of this process.
Most of the book, however, is dedicated to not-quite-independent chapters that each deal with a social phenomenon (such as fleeing crowds and stock fluctuations) and how attempts to capture their dynamics have developed from scratch. Independent of their actual subject, this is a fascinating look into the creation and improvement of scientific models. It shows how they start by grossly oversimplifying the real phenomena and gradually introduce more complex aspects as time, resources and priorities allow. It deals with insights that can be teased from the models' results and how they inspire comparisons to other disciplines. Most importantly perhaps, it talks about the extent to which the models' implications should be taken as fact or the vaguest of hints towards the truth (usually more the latter than the former).

At some points, a chapter will feel like more of the same, and I imagine some readers might be put off by the sometimes trivial-seeming social phenomenon in question or the severe limitations of a particular model. But to me it was consistently well-written food for thought worthy of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Gavin.
1,085 reviews320 followers
August 27, 2018
"Being an Enquiry into the Interplay of Chance and Necessity in the Way That Human Culture, Customs, Institutions, Cooperation and Conflict Arise" (2004) by Philip Ball.

An elegant pop treatment of the once-burgeoning physics of mass human behaviour. (Which physics follows hundreds of years of stupid and/or inhumane theories claiming the name "social physics"). A love letter to statistical mechanics:
Most people who have encountered thermodynamics blanch at its mention, because it is an awesomely tedious discipline both to learn theoretically and to investigate experimentally. This is a shame, because it is also one of the most astonishing theories in science. Think of it: here is a field of study initiated to help nineteenth-century engineers make better engines, and it turns out to produce some of the grandest and most fundamental statements about the way the entire universe works. Thermodynamics is the science of change, and without change there is nothing to be said...

Tools, methods and ideas developed to understand how the blind material fabric of the universe behaves are finding application in arenas for which they were never designed, and for which they might at first glance appear ridiculously inappropriate. Physics is finding its place in a science of society.

Introduces a hundred topics from thermodynamics, economics, econophysics, game theory, and fields which don't have a name yet, including intuitive explanations of fearsome concepts like:

self-organized criticality the 2D and 3D Ising model diffusion-limited aggregation in bacteria and cities Lévy-stability the business cycle random walks superfluidity and supercooling phase transitions bifurcation theory traffic flow Zipf's law the Small world phenomenon catastrophe theory ...

Unlike shiny TED-style nonfiction, he refers directly to the original scientific papers and includes small interviews with the original researchers. No equations, but beautiful diagrams relating micro with macro, too: snowflakes to traffic and bacterial colonies to cities.

The book's reception, in the main by middlebrow, mathematically illiterate reviewers shocked me a bit: their banner conclusions were "boo! people aren't particles!!", a truism which Ball spends much of the book thinking about, and "aaar horrible people have said they've found the laws of society before!!", a truism the first fifth of the book is a history of. In their haste to protect ordinary human difference from averages, and the notion of free will from technical explanations, they flee to safe refuges like "complexity" and "reflexivity", i.e. out of science. Ball can speak for himself though:
The notion that we could ever construct a scientific "utopia theory" [e.g. classical Marxism] is, then, doomed to absurdity. Certainly, a "physics of society" can provide nothing of the sort. One does not build an ideal world from scientifically based traffic planning, market analysis, criminology, network design, game theory, and the gamut of other ideas discussed in this book. Concepts and models drawn from physics are almost certainly going to find their way into other areas of social science, but they are not going to provide a comprehensive theory of society, nor are they going to make traditional sociology, economics, or political science redundant. The skill lies in deciding where a mechanistic, quantitative model is appropriate for describing human behavior, and where it is likely to produce nothing but a grotesque caricature. This is a skill that is still being acquired, and it is likely that there will be embarrassments along the way.

But properly and judiciously applied, physical science can furnish some valuable tools in areas such as social, economic, and civic planning, and in international negotiation and legislation. It may help us to avoid bad decisions; if we are lucky, it will give us some foresight. If there are emergent laws of traffic, of pedestrian motions, of network topologies, of urban growth, we need to know them in order to plan effectively. Once we acknowledge the universality displayed in the physical world, it should come as no surprise that the world of human social affairs is not necessarily a tabula rasa, open to all options.

Society is complex but that does not place it beyond our ken. As we have seen, complexity of form and organization can arise from simple underlying principles if they are followed simultaneously by a great many individuals.

There is a real question about how deep into human behaviour the statistical approach can go. Econophysics, as a term and as a living, funded academic subfield, fizzled out shortly after this book was published. Apparently the SOC results have come in for a lot of criticism, though mostly of their overreach than the method being humanistically inapplicable or whatevs.

Even so, I wish I had read this 5 years ago: it would have saved me lots of contortions. it taught me a huge amount anyway. (e.g. the huge moral panic, following the invention of descriptive statistics, about ever using means to describe any human characteristics, since the remarkable stability of e.g. the C17th London crime rate across decades seemed to speak of divine or diabolical insurance.) One of my top 5 books on economics, one of my top 5 books on physics.

In one sentence: Social physics had at last begun to make exciting progress on understanding mass human behaviour.
Profile Image for Cem Yüksel.
321 reviews51 followers
March 4, 2023
The book which has accompanied me for some years at many travels with few restarts to reading has a wide coverage on physics, statistics , behavioural economy. The physics and statistics part is based on researches and the other part questions how these may be reflected to predictions of economy, human behaviour and daily life such as traffic planning to marketplace. It is interesting to see some good reflections based on physics law . However the question stays especially in a very fast changing world whether they are relevant as general universal physics laws or there is similar change there like the one from Newtonian framework to new quantum and post quantum framework of physics. It might be interesting to check the ideas in the book at a time with new theories in science. The initial part on theories and research is a bit challenging for the ones without too much science background.
Profile Image for Leanne.
Author 2 books8 followers
April 16, 2018
This probably deserves more stars as it is amazingly researched and covers a HUGE amount of theoretical, historical, scientific, and pop culture ground. However, I found it almost as boring as all hell...but maybe not quite that bad. I didn’t get the point of a lot of it. It was like a quick run down on everything ever. It wasn’t touching. It wasn’t curious. It wasn’t interesting. It was a hard slog. I might have been turned off and slightly roused in the suspicions department by the recommendation from Bill Bryson on the front cover. Had it been from Stephen Hawkins...might have been a different story for me.
Profile Image for David Cuen.
248 reviews13 followers
August 7, 2019
It’s not easy to try to write about science in an accessible way that it’s both simple and rigorous but the author somehow manages to do it. On top of that he tries to carry out some of the learnings from science into social sciences and leave us with more open questions. It never answers fully why one thing leads to another in society but I don’t think that was the intention. It does leave us with a bunch of things to think about on how we are influenced by one another. Even though it took me time to get through it all it was with the investment.
Profile Image for Ivan Budiselic.
15 reviews
May 19, 2023
I bought this book many years ago (can't remember why - it must have been recommended by someone) and started and stopped reading several times in the interim. Overall, it feels very bloated for the information that it contains, especially so in the first half. It reads like a dry and meandering history of gas physics, economics, and philosophy.

It gets significantly better in the second half, which also must be why I finally finished it, with some interesting sections related to network formation and game theory.
Profile Image for Mina M.
237 reviews22 followers
June 24, 2018
I finally finished this. I must admit that I skimmed certain parts and skipped others, but I forced myself to read the majority of the book. Some parts were genuinely interesting: I enjoyed the degrees of separation chapter and the last one as well. Sadly, what I'm left with is a really long book that didn't really tell me much besides referencing various scientific studies and experiments. Maybe I would have liked it better if I had taken science past grade 11. Maybe not.
1 review
April 8, 2020
The idea behind a 'physics of society' is quite interesting. Ball explains a wide variety of topics, some of which are interesting (how traffic moves through cities, game theory in society) although there are some parts that are not that interesting (stock market for example). The chapters are quite heavy with research, so this book is not a page turner, but overall his explanations are clear and interesting.
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
590 reviews27 followers
March 29, 2021
An old book from the early 2000s (anything before 2008 is early 2000s worlds different politically if you are on the left in the days of neoliberal TINA.) Fairly good intro to statistics, phase transitions (in generalized mathematical form), ideas around networks. You can tell it is old by the fact that moons over things like the World wide web and information superhighways. Anyway a product of its time and a pleasurable read nonetheless.
Profile Image for Tina.
137 reviews7 followers
April 3, 2021
Interesting read, but the writing style was slightly too dry and verbose. Also, it was a tad too focused on physical theory for my taste (which at least I wasn't all that interested in), which made the earlier chapters a bit tedious to read through. However, Philip Ball provides some groundbreaking insights, which makes 'Critical Mass' worth another read... except this time I will have a my notepad and pen ready.
Profile Image for Heba.
71 reviews29 followers
January 26, 2018
الكتاب في علم الفيزياء الاجتماعية وهو محاولة لفهم طبيعة الأفعال البشرية في حالات الاجتماع عن طريق دراسة تفاعلات جزئيات المواد بعضها مع بعض. شرح الكاتب الأثر الذي احدثته مختلف النظريات الفيزيائية على تطور علم الاجتماع.
أعجبني بالأخص آخر فصل إذ لم يغفل الكاتب التكلم عن محدودية العلم وكونه لا يعدو توصيفا للواقع ولا يمكن استمداد النظم الخُلُقية منه.
Profile Image for Ekbal.
12 reviews3 followers
June 15, 2019
Amazingly informative and thoroughly researched. I learnt a lot from this book. But it was a long and arduous process to finish because of the sheer weight of information and discussion contained within the pages. Those interested in the fascinating notion of a 'science of society' must read this and place it in an important position on their bookshelf.
Profile Image for Colby.
531 reviews17 followers
October 27, 2017
A gripping start .... compelling, informative; a middling middle, straining the link between [human collective] behaviour and hard science; a dissipative ending, which failed to pursue the findings [logically] of the segregation-studies he cited.
Profile Image for Azka Nur Afifah.
55 reviews91 followers
April 19, 2019
Rating merely reflects my reading experience.

This one is a tough read for me. Might re-read this again for a better understanding. Nevertheless a really comprehensive book about social physics.

My favorite chapters are about how and why people move their way, and how traffic jams are formed.
54 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2019
Good book. Nothing extraordinary on the writing or the author, but as a pop science showing an array of works in particular fields, I liked a lot the insights he gives in social sciences taking models from physics.
Profile Image for Bas.
46 reviews2 followers
February 19, 2020
Bomvol interessante natuurwetenschappelijke feiten en onderzoeken maar de beloofde vertaalslag naar het sociale en politieke domein is ondermaats, te gemakzuchtig, en eerlijk gezegd stuitend blind voor de eigenzinnigheid van het sociale.
October 11, 2017
Facts.mixed with gross errors.

The book is a superb example of layering errors from one field onto another. The facts emphasize misunderstandings. Pure fiction.
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