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Critical Mass


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About the Author

Philip Ball is the author of Life's Matrix (FSG, 2000); Bright Earth (FSG, 2002), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and, most recently, The Devil's Doctor (FSG, 2006). He lives in London with his wife.


What can physics have to say about how people behave in groups, how networks such as the Internet evolve, and why the stock market fluctuates, among other questions? According to Ball (Designing the Molecular World; contributor, Nature and New Scientist magazines), a lot. The application of physical methods to social problems isn't particularly new, as the author demonstrates, beginning with Hobbes's attempt at a scientific explanation of politics. The development of statistical measurements of society paralleled the growth of statistical physics; as Ball puts it: "physical science and social science were the twin siblings of a mechanistic philosophy and when it was not in the least disreputable to invoke the habits of people to explain the habits of insensate particles." With that in mind, Ball explores recent applications of statistical physics toward a study of social physics. He draws on a wide body of contemporary literature that includes physical approaches to traffic, economics, group dynamics, and politics. While the physical application to the social sciences is not alien, as physics explains the behavior of particles and phase transitions, can it explain human behavior? Ball goes further to suggest that whatever we may make of individual behavior, "once we become part of a group we cannot be sure what to expect"; there are social forces affecting one's behavior that the individual cannot understand, e.g., something as mundane as clapping after a performance (why does it get louder and softer?). Ball has written an elegant synthesis that goes a long way toward illuminating why physicists are exploring social questions and the implications of their work. Highly recommended for both academic and public library science collections.-Garrett Eastman, Rowland Inst., Harvard Univ. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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. Agent, Russ Galen. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

"A wide-ranging and dazzlingly informed book about the science of interactions. I can promise you'll be amazed." --Bill Bryson, chair of the 2005 Aventis General Prize Judging Panel "Philip Ball makes physics sexy again in Critical Mass." --Elissa Schappel, Vanity Fair "It's lively and wonderfully informative." --George Scialabba, The Boston Globe "Fascinating. . . impressively clear and breathtaking in scope. . . substantial, impeccably researched . . . persuasive. For anyone who would like to learn about the intellectual ferment at the surprising junction of physics and social science, Critical Mass is the place to start." --Stephen Strogatz, Nature

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