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Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another [Paperback]

Philip Ball
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
RRP: 10.99
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Book Description

3 Feb 2005
Is there a 'physics of society'? Philip Ball's investigation into human nature ranges from Hobbes and Adam Smith to modern work on traffic flow and market trading, across economics, sociology and psychology. Ball shows how much of human behaviour we can understand when we cease trying to predict and analyse the behaviour of individuals and look to the impact of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual human decisions, in circumstances in which human beings both co-operate and 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 new 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 + The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few + The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
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Product details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (3 Feb 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099457865
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099457862
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 95,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

Product Description

Review

"Exquisitely produced and painstakingly researched... Ball writes patiently and eloquently.. Exciting... A rousing call-to-arms, and an elegant answer to the shallow tradition of British empiricism." (Independent)

"In his fascinating new book, Critical Mass, Philip Ball tells the story of this research in a comprehensive and often captivating way... Ball delves far beyond today's headlines... Impressively clear and breathtaking in scope... Substantial, impeccably researched and...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." (Nature)

"Lucid, accessible and engaging... Ball makes a persuasive, comprehensive case and it's a welcome antidote to popular individualistic thought." (Glasgow Herald)

"Critical Mass fizzes with ideas and insights" (The Guardian)

"more than a book, this in an intellectual curiosity" (Independent on Sunday)

Book Description

The winner of the Aventis Prize for Science Books, this is a fascinating exploration of the age-old question: are there 'laws of nature' that guide human affairs? Is there anything inevitable about the ways humans behave and organise themselves? Do we have complete freedom in creating our societies, or are we trapped by 'human nature'?

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Collective Ebullition 29 Mar 2010
By demola
Format:Paperback
Why do we decide individually or so we think but end up acting collectively? This is the central theme explored in this marvelous book that runs the gamut from traffic systems to network topology to urban planning. I love the multi-dimensionality this book displays which enriches the mind and gets one thinking about old problems in new ways. Surely in such a troublesome world such as ours with 7 billion-ish people and problems ad infinitum, solving problems must be one of the most valuable skills that can be taught. This is (sort of) what "Critical Mass" delivers.

There are a few fault lines where Ball employs novelistic stunts. I'll give two. First is his indiscriminate use of the so called "power law" discovered in many studies to describe collective behaviour. This law turns out to be nothing but an inverse relationship between two variables but "power" and "law" together sound sexier and so much more authoritative. Pah! The second is where he's talking about Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) and Ball casually refers to D as a criminal to prove a point. Well, yes kind of, but Dostoyevsky was condemmed for associating with radicals who wanted to free serfs/slaves. It wasn't like he was a murderer. Rant over. Read the book.
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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philip Ball's Masterpiece 9 Dec 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Yes, without a doubt, Philip Ball's greatest book to date. He is probably better known among scientists than laypersons as he was for a long time editor at Nature one of the worlds top multi-disciplinary science journals. He has a degree in chemistry and a doctorate in physics but he seems to know a great deal more, when he mentions literature he sounds like an english professor but enough about the man - what about his book?
The joy of Ball's erudition is that he can speak intelligently on any subject which must have been useful at Nature and is essential when he tackles popular science books such as this. His books are not for the lazy but curious person, to get joy out of Ball's books you must be prepared to think hard, concentrate a little and then the rewards will come. In this book, Ball discusses the startling results that physicists have had when applying physics to social phenomena - war, business, traffic. People are particles is a common theme. Obviously classical physics or even quantum phenomena are not going to predict a single persons actions, but what about a million? As it turns out there are parallels which we run in to again and again. One fascinating analogy - and it is more than just analogy really, thats the whole point - is how traffic slowing to a jam is much like water freezing. Phase changes and critical points come up repeatedly. Reading this book was absolutely fascinating. I looked forward to my bus rides to work so I'd have another chance to read some more.
The diagrams ease comprehension and the writing is lucid and entertaining throughout. There is even some dry humour which I found refreshing.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting book. 25 Aug 2008
By Stucumber VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
Critical Mass provides an overview and investigation into the study of human society and interactions using physics-based models.

The book gets off to a roaring start, beginning with exploring the models used throughout. Then it moves to looking at how they can be applied to crowds and other physical human interactions such as traffic flow. Philip Ball, I think, succeeds here most in showing how the physics-based models apply to real-life behaviour.

Where he least succeeds for me is in relation to economics but this is mostly because I find this particular subject dull and I've recently read Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and it's left me somewhat sceptical of making any sense of economics. Indeed Black Swan The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable makes a good (if cynical) companion book as it covers the role of chance occurences more fully.

Later sections on networks such as the internet and our social connectedness fare better. They don't contain much new information but they're very interesting nonetheless as the author has an engaging style.

All very interesting and well recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Efficient popular science 5 Dec 2010
By The Emperor TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was well written and interesting throughout. The subject matter is often quite familiar now but he presents it well and generally makes convincing arguments.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard Work, but worth making the effort 22 Aug 2007
Format:Paperback
Like other reviewers, at times I found this really hard work to read - coming as I did from a non-science background. The first few chapters are necessarily tough, as they set a lot of the groundwork and understanding for the rest of the book. I recommend sticking with it, as reading this book offered me a different perspective on 'how things are' to many of the more arts-based ones I've tended to be more influenced by previously. If we're to understand the challenges society faces going forward, then it's important to make the effort and engage with this sort of thinking and rationale - even if I finished the book not entirely convinced by his central arguments.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars People as particles 11 July 2005
Format:Hardcover
I found this book incredibly thought provoking. It would have been much quicker to read in fact if I hadn't been constantly writing down ideas that occured to me as I delved into its chapters.

It covers an enormous amount of ground and is, mostly, very readable despite sometimes covering a whirlwind of several hundred years of theory.

The main gist of the book is applying physics theories to human social interaction (be it in crowds, queues, crime, traffic, war, politics, markets, towns, businesses etc). It highlights how certain signature patterns seem to turn up time and time again in all these disparate theatres of human life.

It covers the familiar "bell curves" of probability theory but it was most interesting (to me) when discussing phase changes - for example how a liquid line of traffic suddenly morphs into a solid because one car (particle) brakes too fast and the knock on effects this has.

I'd strongly recommend this book as I think it's given me a better understanding of how certain types of change happen. Now I know why you wait ages for a bus and then three turn up at once.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars PROBABLY THE MOST INTERESTING BOOK EVER WRITTEN
It begins with an encyclopaedic history of every major theoretical contribution - from every mathematician, physicist, economist, philosopher or social scientist - to what is... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Valentine Stockdale
3.0 out of 5 stars good but not so good
I like Philip Ball but i found this a hard read, a bit of a drag at times.. not because its technically demanding, rather it makes the same points over and over again. Read more
Published 16 months ago by tyrone
4.0 out of 5 stars Broad ranging, thought provoking book.
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... Read more
Published on 20 Jun 2012 by P. McCLEAN
2.0 out of 5 stars Science trivia and name dropping
The subject does sound interesting, but the book avoids making any conclusion. This is a book of five hundred pages of very well edited science trivia and name dropping. Read more
Published on 10 May 2009 by Kerola Sami
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun to read - Changes your perspective!
I really enjoyed this book, I just grabbed it at the airport because I needed something to read.
It must be hard, covering so many topics. Read more
Published on 18 Sep 2007 by R. A. Gremmen
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting stuff but almost obscured
There are some interesting chapters in this book, if nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it is almost spoilt by the first 2 or 3 which are excessively long and dull. Read more
Published on 12 Jun 2007 by N. Lott
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard work for no reward....
I agree with a lot of the comments... this book is very hard work, boring and rather tedious to read, very little original thinking and ultimately a bit of a waste of time. Read more
Published on 1 Mar 2007 by N. Dale
2.0 out of 5 stars Science plus politics equals dullsville
This is a rare, book indeed - one that I couldn't finish! In the last thirty years, I have failed with only perhaps ten books, and this is one of them. Read more
Published on 18 April 2006 by Avidreader
5.0 out of 5 stars The Will to Power (Law)
This is a super book.
Philip Ball, a self-confessed liberal - more on that later - is first and foremost a scientist (a former staffer on Nature magazine), and his brief here... Read more
Published on 1 April 2006 by Olly Buxton
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