Equations for Traffic and Marriage ; Philip Ball Argues That Human Behavior Follows the Laws of Physics in Surprising and Illuminating Ways

Article excerpt

One safe prediction we can make about the coming election season is that there will be an abundance of pundits with conflicting opinions. We'll hear from TV personalities and party functionaries. But, if science writer Philip Ball is right, the people we really should listen to are physicists.

In "Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another," Ball gives a sprawling account of physics over the past several centuries - from thermodynamics to complexity theory - showing how fundamental insights about the behavior of matter can be adapted to understand the dynamics of society. He applies this claim intriguingly to a variety of social, economical, and political situations, showing, for instance, that voting follows patterns akin to magnetization, and marriage rates resemble the behavior of gasses and liquids.

While neither cohesive nor gracefully written, the book provides a solid foundation for assessing a compelling argument: The tools of statistical physics cannot reasonably be ignored by a government seeking to construct viable social policy.

"Once we acknowledge the universality displayed in the physical world," Ball writes, "it should come as no surprise that the world of human social affairs is not necessarily a tabula rasa, open to all options." In other words, before deciding how we ought to act, we should figure out what can - and can't - be done.

Of course, Ball isn't the first to suggest that societies might learn from science. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes famously built a political system around the rational study of what he believed to be human nature. "The skill of making, and maintaining Commonwealths consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmatique and Geometry," Hobbes claimed in "Leviathan" (1660). With those rules, he deftly extrapolated from man's insatiable desire for power, the need for absolute monarchy.

Ball rightly recognizes Leviathan's importance: "[Hobbes] does not describe a society ready-made and shaped by his own preferences, but builds it up, with careful logic, from his mechanistic view of how humans behave."

Yet he also rightfully dismisses Hobbes's draconian conclusions. How? Not only by rejecting his questionable premise, but also, more significantly, by challenging his methodology.

Just as one can't explain the behavior of planets by studying the motion of atoms, Ball believes that one cannot understand how societies work by examining the motivations of individuals. "One of the features of collective behavior arising from local interactions," he writes, "is that it becomes impossible to deduce the global state of a system purely by inspecting the characteristics of individual components." Even if people individually are power hungry, we can't safely assume that civilization as a whole works that way. …