Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another : Being an Enquiry Into the Interplay of Chance and Necessity in the Way that Human Culture, Customs, Institutions, Cooperation and Conflict Arise

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004 - Human behavior - 644 pages
3 Reviews
Is there a 'physics of society'? Ranging from Hobbes and Adam Smith to modern work on traffic flow and market trading, and across economics, sociology, psychology, Phillip Ball shows how much we can understand of human behaviour when we cease to try to predict and analyse the behaviour of indiviuals and look to the impact of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual human decisions, whether in circumstances in which human being co-operate or conflict, when their aggregate behaviour is constructive and when it is destructive. By perhaps Britain's leading young science writer, this is a deeply thought-provoking book, causing us to examine our own behaviour, whether in buying the Harry Potter book, voting for a particular party or responding to the lures of advertisers.

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Critical mass: how one thing leads to another

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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 ... Read full review

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Critical Mass: A Wake Up Call
It's a shame that most Americans will not read this book. In essence it's an antidote to media hype and academic air-spinning, a physics-based approach to social
science capable of emancipating the individual and seeing with our eyes wide open.
The desire to simplify for the sake of analysis - to categorize, if you will - explains to a large extent why the human race has survived. Yet too often, our categorization contradicts the essence of how things are.
For example, our binary approach to science (empirical or rational); our metaphysical dichotomies (Darwinism or God); and friction-less Utopian assumptions (economics), still bitterly divide us.
In truth, we are both made and simultaneously make ourselves. We are free to be who we are while, at the same time, are subject to inexorable laws.
Choice and certainty are both part of the same package.
Even if things are going to end up in a foreseen manner (e.g., death, taxes), we can't be sure just where along the path we are at any given moment. Just as snowflakes conform to mathematical laws, so too humans, each unique as individuals but, as a general population, often predictable.
In this way, even the logic of game theory becomes no more than an expendable tool in the shadow of ideology. Why? Because people turn things and ideas to their advantage. Isn't that part of our nature?
As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: "all great captains have performed vast achievements by conforming to the rules of nature -- by adjusting efforts to obstacles". In the same way, all great thinkers must test their ideas by adjusting to how things really are.
But they often don't. As Mr. Ball puts it: "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"
In sum, this book may help liberate readers from "the propensity for linear thinking and to encourage a greater sophistication in their perception of cause and effect".
Which is exactly what we need, now more than ever.
 

Contents

Lesser Forces
38
The Law of Large Numbers
58
The Grand AhWhoom
99
Copyright

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