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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Collective Ebullition
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...
Published on 29 Mar 2010 by demola

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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
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...
Published on 22 Aug 2007 by R. Chant


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Collective Ebullition, 29 Mar 2010
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting book., 25 Aug 2008
By 
Stucumber "Stucumber" (N. Wales) - See all my reviews
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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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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philip Ball's Masterpiece, 9 Dec 2005
By 
M. Wilkinson (Portsmouth, Hampshire) - See all my reviews
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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. I'm not sure I can praise this book highly enough, I've read popular science, and many academic titles and this is probably the one I've enjoyed most - it is one of those books that will make you look at everything differently.
Five stars without a doubt. A stimulating, exciting, fascinating read. 1st rate popular science, 1st rate writing.
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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 (UK) - See all my reviews
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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
By 
R. Chant (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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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
By 
I. Davidson "ianmsd" (London) - See all my reviews
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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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5.0 out of 5 stars Fun to read - Changes your perspective!, 18 Sep 2007
By 
R. A. Gremmen (Utrecht) - See all my reviews
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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.
You may need a background in physics to understand the first few chapters, this is certainly not true for the rest.
For me the book contains a lot of new concepts on fields partly new to me, traffic planning, biology, economy, international politics.
The simple models on integration and game theory almost make me run to a computer to start modeling and programming (if I had time).

The philosophical references make it even more interesting!
I certainly would recommend it!
(unless you have a grade in all of the fields above)

Next time you're in a traffic jam, be sure to have it on the seat next to you ;-)
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All build-up, no payoff, 27 Jun 2005
By 
Dr. P. J. A. Wicks (London, England) - See all my reviews
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I picked this book on the basis of it's cover blurb saying it was about crowd psychology and that kind of thing. I was quite surprised to find on opening it that it was in fact a not-so-brief history of nearly everything to do with physics. I can see where Philip Ball was coming from in taking this approach; readers need a historical context in order to understand his argument. But when it takes some 200 pages of rather tiresome history lessons to get to the good stuff one begins to wonder; what can he say to rescue me from this tedium? I would have preferred one of two approaches. One, drop the pseudo science and go straight for an analysis of group behaviour with some nice buzzwords like "complexity" and "uncertainty" thrown in for fun. Or two, come clean that this is a physics history book and sell it straight to a well-read science crowd without the overly long introduction. Meanwhile I'll be recommending Bill Bryson's "A Brief History of Everything" to acquaint the reader with the history of science without dropping them into a coma, "How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions" by Francis Wheen or "Fear: A Cultural History" by Joana Bourke for two far more interesting reads on cultural fads and phenomena.
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59 of 77 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Science plus politics equals dullsville, 18 April 2006
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. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the opening few chapters are an extremely dull and mainly pointless diversion into phase transitions. Ball is concerned with making a point about masses of humans behaving like particles but frankly, even if we do, we don't need pages and pages of O Level physics tedium to describe what is happening in trafiic jams and the markets.

Second, the writing, whilst competent, is dry and dusty in the extreme. I found myself dozing off or my mind wandering much of the time, despite the fact that once it gets going, there are some intresting nuggets to be gleaned. But Ball has made a thick book out of a few points of interest, and that means lots of history of science and lots of references.

Third, Ball cannot keep his rather naive leftish political views out of the argument. If I want politics, I'll read/buy politics. This is supposed to be science though, and bending the story to meet some wishy-washy view of the world is not enlightening. The section on markets is terribly ill-informed and adds almost nothing to what is already known. Ball also makes the common mistake of using US stock markets as a proxy for the capitalist system, which leads to some strained comparisons and conclusions.

There are far more interesting books out there that deal with some of the issues Ball raises. Indeed, The Wisdom of Crowds uses some of the same examples and pieces of data to make more plausible and insightful theories about human behaviour. All in all, impossible to recommend.
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26 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Will to Power (Law), 1 April 2006
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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 is to canvas the application of statistical scientific explanations of physical phenomena, such as phase transitions in liquids and solids, by analogy to human behaviour.
This is a splendid enterprise, not just because it is a very imaginative application of established knowledge to novel fields of enquiry, which to my mind is always a worthwhile endeavour (whether or not the results are useful, we're better off if someone has done the intellectual exercise than if they haven't), but also because it grasps a fundamental point which social scientists almost always miss: It is what a population will *actually* do which matters, not what it *ought* to do, or what *we'd like it* to do.
Politics is the pursuit these latter questions, and it is almost always pursued in ignorance of scientific data describing the former, and a central point of Ball's book is that this is a dreadful shame. And so it is.
A complaint one sees levied against Ball's book is that it misses the critical distinction between physical particles - which are all identical, except for a few key easily measured properties - and humans who, in almost every respect, are entirely different from each other. But this misses the point: the very beauty of statistical physics is that you can draw inferences about how a large mass of particles behave without knowing or measuring *anything* about the behaviour (vector, spin, magnetism, whatever) of any given particle. And so it is with people: Ball's argument is to say, on the basis of the statistical evidence, from the markets, from patterns on university lawns, from trajectories of individuals navigating a corridor: we can make inferences about what a group of people will do knowing nothing about their individual motives, in the same way we can about particles without knowing their vector or spin. At that level, people are *not* significantly different: people *do* behave like particles. Therefore these fundamental differences between people, which may be real (but may be not - for all we know, these "special qualities" we cherish may be a product of human chauvinism) are not material to how we behave en masse.
As Ball moves on, his subject resolves slowly to focus on social interaction within a society, and the interesting work on game theory and iterated prisoner's dilemma by Axelrod and others, all of which tend to suggest, in spite of centuries of supposition to the contrary, that if left to their own devices and allowed to act selfishly, folks will tend to get on with each other - in life, co-operative strategies will tend to be more successful than uncooperative ones, so people naturally inclined to cooperate will tend to flourish. This is contra Marx, Hobbes and so forth, but stands to reason when you think about it: if this principle were not true at the most fundamental evolutionary level, it is hard to see how we would be here to argue about it.
Despite that, Ball's liberalism does show through, and in odd ways, in a couple of places. One result suggested by research is that many distributions in society - sizes of incomes, cities, businesses and so on) will tend to be arranged according to a power law, rather than a normal distribution (that is, there will be a large number with a broadly similar size, and a very few with a very much larger size). Traditional social-liberal orthodoxy is that this is a bad thing, and by implication Ball thinks so:
"This is not to say that power law disparities in the free market are inevitable. But it does suggest that, if we decide they are undesirable, we shall probably need to restrict some of the freedom with which the market operates."
Unobjectionable, centrist sentiment you might say. But hold on: a free market assumes the free participation of everyone in the market (otherwise, it wouldn't be a free market). Now, if that market arranges itself according to a power law, then must that not be precisely what "we" - the participants in the market - have decided, by our very own actions, *is* desirable? We have, all by our own actions, unwittingly colluded to make one city very big, or one company very rich - if that is truly not want we want, we can move, or we can buy a different product. By Ball's own argument, there is no better indication of what "we" decide is what we want. As soon as someone starts talking about what "we" want, overriding the judgment of the market (which, statistically, describes how we collectively behave without needing to measure individual vectors, spins or magnetisms, remember) it seems to me we are in very dangerous territory.
Ball, I think, realises this and never dares more than a wistful look in this direction. In any case, it is certainly not enough to deprive this book of five stars: a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.
Olly Buxton
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