Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

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  • Recent Results in Stochastic Programming: Proceedings, Oberwolfach, January 28 – February 3, 1979.
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Critical Mass : How One Thing Leads to Another [Paperback]

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? There was a problem adding your email address.

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Are there laws of nature that guide human affairs? Is anything inevitable about the ways humans behave and organize themselves, or do we have complete freedom in creating our societies? In short, just how, in human affairs, does one thing lead to another?

In searching for answers, science writer Philip Ball argues that we can enlist help from a seemingly unlikely source: physics. The first person to think this way was the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. His approach, described in Leviathan , was based not on utopian wishful thinking, but rather on Galileo's mechanics; it was an attempt to construct a moral and political theory from scientific first principles.

Although his solution—absolute monarchy—is unappealing today, Hobbes sparked a new way of thinking about human behavior in looking for the "scientific" rules of society. Today the purpose of applying concepts from physics to the social, political, and economic sciences is no longer to prescribe how society ought to be; instead, it is to understand the way it is, and how it evolves.

In Critical Mass , Ball looks at what this "physics of society" has to say about how people move in open or enclosed spaces; how they make decisions and cast votes, form allegiances, join groups, establish companies and communities. He examines the behavior of financial markets and reveals the hidden structure in networks of social and business contacts, and he explores the politics of conflict and cooperation from a scientific point of view.

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