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CRITICAL MASS by Philip Ball Kirkus Star


How One Thing Leads to Another

by Philip Ball

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-28125-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Can human nature be reduced to a set of laws that can then be used to organize society? By this intriguing account, many a physicist is now exploring such a question.

Apply a law to individual humans, and you’ll likely end up with more exceptions than rules. But perhaps, suggests British science writer Ball (The Ingredients, 2003, etc.), the terms haven’t been correctly expressed: human nature is more a collective than an individual matter, so the task is to describe the workings of the crowd, such that “we can make predictions about society even in the face of individual free will.” Opening his inquiry with Thomas Hobbes, who proposed a mechanistic model of humankind in his much-despised Leviathan, Ball touches on some unsettling questions: Are we merely drones in a big hive? Is there such a thing as free will? (Probably: Ball points to “many examples of social behavior in which a kind of regularity and order comes not from any predestination in the fates of the participants but from the very limited range of their viable choices.”) Writing with his customary light hand, and drawing on very recent developments in things like chaos and network theory, Ball looks at some of those examples to see what scientists think about why we do the things we do. Why, for instance, are there traffic jams? (Because the universe is rife with anomalies and random perturbations.) Why do economic systems—the stock market, say—resist behaving in always predictable ways? (Ditto, and “the fluctuations are unavoidable.”) Why do wars erupt, and why do some wars stay small and manageable while others kill millions? (Ditto, and therefore “there can be no telling how big a conflict might be sparked by the smallest disturbance.”) Ball’s survey raises more questions than it answers, but one fascinating constant emerges: “Regardless of what we believe about the motivations for individual behavior, once we become part of a group we cannot be sure what to expect.”

A highly provocative work of popular science.