Critical Mass | Philip Ball

Summary of: Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another
By: Philip Ball


Dive into the captivating world of ‘Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another’ by Philip Ball, as it explores the fascinating intersection between physics, social science, and human behavior. Unravel the quest to discover a science of society, drawing inspiration from historical figures like Hobbes, Petty, and Maxwell. Trace the evolution of thought from catastrophe theory and chaos theory to self-organization, following the attempts at understanding how collective human behavior may follow the predictable patterns similar to those of a physics system. By exploring intriguing analogies to self-organizing phenomena from the animal kingdom, Ball widens the horizon to appreciate the complex interplay that governs our societies.

The Newtonian Physics of Politics

Sir William Petty, a British anatomist of the 17th century, wrote a manuscript that aimed to prove a Newtonian physics of politics. He believed that natural laws could be applied to the development of societies, and those who studied these laws could as effectively order society as those who studied the laws of machinery ordered it. This manuscript predicted greatness for England, and was well-received by the Royal Court, including King William III. Petty’s effort to discover mathematical order in society was only the beginning of a growing trend. In the 1970s, catastrophe theory was introduced, followed by chaos theory in the 1980s. Today, theorists focus on the complexity of human society, self-organization, and emergence. They have found that disparate parts may act collectively and even predictably in systems, and these theories can be applied to society. The ultimate goal is to construct a society where wisdom and compassion prevail. The science of society is a long-standing effort, and today we may be closer than ever to achieving that this goal.

Hobbes and the Fundamentals of Human Governance

Discover how Thomas Hobbes’ application of rigorous intellectual discipline led to the development of fundamental laws of human government despite his limited appreciation for individual liberty or democracy.

Thomas Hobbes was a classical scholar who developed a theory of government to bring peace to England during the civil war. Hobbes was inspired by the power of deduction from Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and aimed to find a theory of governance as indisputable as Euclid’s theorems of lines and planes. In his book Leviathan, Hobbes came up with a theory that postulated that the power of the sovereign needed to be absolute, derived from the miserable insecurity of human nature in the state of nature. Hobbes’ approach involved rigorous intellectual discipline to study human society and deduce its fundamental laws without any biases or prejudices, using reason as the main tool.

Although Hobbes’ persuasion had no room for individual liberty or democracy, the methodology he adopted in his research has been impactful, as he dispensed with all prejudices and biases and relied solely on reason. Economists have also benefited from his theory as they attribute to market forces a supremely stabilizing influence, and they speak in terms of market equilibrium, a stable state where all economic indicators are in perfect balance. In summary, despite Hobbes’ limited appreciation for individual liberty or democracy, his rigorous intellectual discipline applied to the study of human society led him to key deductions in the fundamental laws of human government.

The Influence of Social Philosophy on Science

Throughout history, there has been a constant interplay between science and social philosophy. While physicists sometimes borrowed ideas from social philosophers, the flow of thought often went the other way, as in the case of James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell observed how individual gas particles in rapid motion could keep a balloon inflated, and asked why they did not all move to one side or the other. The idea that the arrangement which kept the balloon inflated was simply more probable than any other was inspired by a social thinker, not a physicist.

The Origins of Statistics

The history of statistics can be traced back to John Graunt’s Observations upon the Bills of Mortality, published in 1662. Through this work, Graunt observed regular patterns in ages and causes of death, inspiring the idea that society follows predictable laws. Adolphe Quetelet later demonstrated the normal distribution of height and weight in the population, making the “average man” the ideal man. Although Quetelet’s notions were valuable to physics, the question remained: where do fluctuations come from? This question inspired Henry Thomas Buckle’s History of Civilization in England, which in turn influenced Maxwell’s understanding of uniformities in experiments with quantities of matter containing millions of molecules. The history of statistics reveals the human drive to observe patterns and laws in the natural world, leading to advancements in multiple fields.

The Mystery of Phase Transitions

The theory of scientists like Maxwell could not explain the phenomenon of phase transitions, where matter rapidly transforms from one state to another. When a material transitions from liquid to solid or gas to liquid, it enters an ordered state where particles react to one another. This results in a uniform, predictable change rather than random behavior.

Fractal Mathematics and Understanding Social Processes

Physicists have moved from studying states of equilibrium, as in classical physics, to studying processes of change. Fractal mathematics helps analyze and describe unpredictable patterns such as those in convection, snowflakes, and crystals. Similarly, social processes can be analyzed and understood.

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