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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  1,283 ratings  ·  111 reviews
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 se ...more
Paperback, 528 pages
Published May 16th 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published July 17th 2003)
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Feb 07, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 i
Jan 26, 2008 rated it liked it
(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
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
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 actio
‘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 p ...more
Xing Chen
Jun 23, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 18, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Jan 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Mar 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Awesome achievement, physics meets economics and still readable.
Jan 09, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Keith Crawford
Mar 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 burn ...more
Jul 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
"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 awesome
Apr 16, 2018 rated it liked it
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 recommendat ...more
catrin h
Mar 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
this was a super interesting look at the development of a "physics of society" and how individual behaviours don't necessarily correlate to groups, and using scientific/statistical methods to understand how large groups of people interact with each other + how it relates to a lot of (mostly western) philosophical/economic ideas we take for granted but aren't always actually true

can't speak for how accurate the connections it tries to draw (mostly to names like hobbes, adam smith and marx) actual
David Cuen
Aug 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 t ...more
Mina M
Jun 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Apr 08, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Paige McLoughlin
Mar 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
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.
Apr 03, 2021 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Jun 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: popular-science
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. ...more
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.
Azka Nur Afifah
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.
Feb 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
George F Greenwald
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.
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-library
A compelling tour de force spanning a multitude of social contexts, crippled somewhat by verbosity.
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was ok
Safe your time and read the wiki about this book. If you want to understand human behavior better, Thinking, fast and slow is way better.
Keegan Crankshaw
Jan 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
A thought-provoking look into the "physics of society". Well researched. ...more
Nov 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Many thought provoking subjects
Chandrasen Rajashekar
Popular science book that summarizes the research in complex systems. Page 267 second paragraph in the book The Black Swan
Djoudi Amazigh
Jul 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good book
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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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