|Critical Mass by Philip Ball
||[Jun. 20th, 2012|10:44 pm]
This book asks whether there are underlying natural laws that govern the endeavours of humans in the same way that natural laws govern processes in nature, such as the growth of snow crystals, phase shifts between liquid and gas, and the way in which metal changes from being magnetised to non-magnetised when heated. To help him address this question Ball introduces tools commonly used in the physical sciences to analyse and simulate natural processes.
In the initial chapters the author describes the history of social science, economics and statistics. He tells how tools of the state, statistics, were adopted in the physical sciences. Then ball looks at processes in human society such as the formation of traffic jams, the pattern of movement in a crowd trying to escape a burning building, the growth pattern of cities, Internet morphology and what it owes to The Cold War years. In all these areas he demonstrates common traits that can be used to analyse and understand the processes in operation.
Ball describes the application of these tools in the natural sciences and then reports on how they have been used in the analysis of human behaviour and such things as the movement of share prices in the stock market.
It is Ball’s contention that there are fundamental patterns that describe many behaviours and trends in human endeavour, from the voting patterns in elections, through the distribution of wealth in nations, to the boom and bust nature of the world’s economies, and that understanding of these fundamentals will improve decision making and planning.
He also reports on simulations carried out to assess the effectiveness and otherwise of different forms of government, i.e. dictatorship, democracy, etc… This is most enlightening and interesting.
While he claims these tools can help us describe process behaviour and help us, he warns against the idea that they can necessarily be used to predict behaviour.
The above paragraphs do scant justice to this book. It is the first non-fiction book I have read in a long time that I was loath to put down. It is vast in scope and presents information at a level that the majority of readers will find accessible. This is a thought provoking book that I will be returning to time and again.