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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  1,222 ratings  ·  101 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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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
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
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 Martinsen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Jun 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I needed about two weeks to digest my thoughts about Philip Ball's great book. As I've expected all the details about power law and state transitions already started to vanish. However, I must say that it's still the best popular text / introduction to complexity theory. I think, it's mainly due to multidisciplinary approach (physics, stats, sociology, economy, in one) and gradual introduction of concepts, which build up to a ... Well that's where the book is coming a bit short. I got a feeling ...more
May 18, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Alex Lee
Jan 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, 2015, philosophy
In this very interesting book, Philip Ball takes us around through various formalizations of physics, as a method of describing how matter (or energy) is actuated in order to highlight a possible formulation for how society is actuated. Curiously, he starts with Hobbes and then walks through the various material relations. Along the way he notes various new ideas as they describe matter and energy, showing in clear lucid language how this may or may not apply with society.

He does come up with so
Dec 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: popular-physics
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 blocks (eve ...more
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I think the author's presentation of so much information in this book is commendable, and the only downside is that he often therefore tackles complex topics with such brevity that I was left actually wishing the book were a bit longer/denser. Overall, however, I can find no fault with either his approach or the way he presents the information, for he gives a balanced appreciation of both the potential for a 'social physics,' as well as the limitations of such an approach.
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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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