Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Critical Mass

Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Critical Mass

How One Thing Leads to Another


15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Can physical science explain human behavior? Well, it gave us modern portfolio theory. Now apply it to traffic jams.

auto-generated audio
auto-generated audio

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


This is a sometimes dense, often rambling and always interesting book about the history of science, the history of social philosophy and many points of congruence between the two, from how traffic jams happen to how communities self-organize. Author Philip Ball seems to include almost every notable physical scientist since Sir Isaac Newton as he traces how key scientific theories have influenced or been influenced by the speculations of economists and political scientists. Anyone whose acquaintance with science is minimal, but whose curiosity is deep, will find that reading this book is something like floating down a river that is a sometimes windy, sometimes swampy, sometimes roiling stream of discoveries, ideas, broken hypotheses and curious characters. There are two small flaws. First, the author identifies almost every scientist who ever worked on a problem remotely related to the book’s subject and sometimes he does not clear the path through the thicket of names and experiments. And, second, in a social science discussion toward the end, Ball permits his political biases to color his story with occasional, apparently heartfelt, denunciations of right-leaning politicians. These quibbles aside, says buy this book and enjoy an intriguing raft ride through interesting intellectual waters.


A Brief Recollection of Arithmetic and Politics

In the late seventeenth century, a British anatomist named Sir William Petty turned his attention to politics. He wrote a manuscript that aimed to demonstrate a kind of Newtonian physics of politics. Petty believed that natural laws allowed one to understand the development of societies. Those who applied themselves to the study of these laws could order society as effectively as those who studied the laws of Newton could order machinery. His manuscript, delivered to the Royal Court by his son, predicted greatness for England. King William III, Prince of Orange, liked it — no surprise there.

The effort to discover mathematical order in the apparently disordered phenomenon of human society may have begun with Petty, but it did not die with him. In the 1970s, catastrophe theory promised insight into the small causes of great changes. In the 1980s, chaos theory succeeded it. Today, theorists are taken with complexity and the notions of self-organization and emergence — physicists have found that disparate parts may act collectively and even predictably in systems, and the analogy to human society seems clear.

The ...

About the Author

Philip Ball majored in chemistry at the University of Oxford and received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bristol. He is now a writer and a consulting editor for Nature. His book, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Comment on this summary