Absorbing science

Philip Ball Critical mass: how one thing leads to another William Heinemann, 2004, pp644, £25

Philip Ball was awarded the Aventis prize for science books for his latest offering, Critical mass. This is an annual award presented by the Aventis Foundation and the Royal Society, aimed at encouraging "the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books". The author of the winning entry is presented with £10,000, not to mention a substantial boost in sales. This extraordinary work encompasses an extremely wide variety of subjects, with chapters dedicated to topics ranging from Hobbes's Leviathan, the internet, the growth of bacteria, political economy, traffic management and globalisation, and each explored with an ease and lucidity that is not normally expected from a science book. However, covering this vast array of material does limit the depth in which Ball can delve, and whilst reading this book I occasionally felt that he had taken the liberty of dismissing an argument by using an unexplained sentence or two, which would often be stated in such a way as to imply factuality. The major theme running throughout is the application of statistical physics to human behaviour, and the mathematical models that can be built up from this approach and then used to predict future results. These have had varying degrees of success, ranging from the rather impressive accuracy of the fluid models that represent the movement of traffic and roadway congestion to some of the less realistic models of the market economy. This econo-physics approach to sociology is interesting, although I remain somewhat unconvinced. As everyone knows, human behaviour does not obey a fundamental set of scientific laws in the same way that a gas particle would, for example, and none of these models can possibly allow for the billions of external forces that influence the actions of human beings, nor the occasionally disproportionate influence of a single individual. This is reflected in Ball's writing, as he often concludes a section acknowledging the failures of these mathematical models to predict the future, which has come to be the benchmark test of any new scientific theory. This aspect of the book may be the most interesting from a purely Marxist perspective - of which Ball himself appears rather dismissive, criticising Marxism of being "strongly (and misguidedly) influenced by Darwinism": a self-defeating charge, in my opinion (p38). The obvious comment that we can make when analysing the results of this approach to human behaviour is that it neglects such fundamental ideas as class and social identity, both of which have a profound effect on the behaviour of individuals and groups. Obviously if the mathematical model that you are studying is representative of how people attempt to flee a burning building, including these issues would perhaps be irrelevant; but when the topic of study is human decision-making and you ignore such fundamental social questions then you are certainly doomed to fail. To neglect the study of class is to neglect the study of the problems of capitalist society, and issues such as alienation, poverty, racism and sexism - all of which play a part in human decision-making. The simply psychological reductionism that is common throughout all of the 'rules' covering the actions of the particle-people used in the mathematical models can safely be rejected by Marxists, who believe that there is slightly more governing the way people act than such generalisations as "agents want to do as little thinking as possible: they want to conform, but with minimum effort" (p385). The statistical approach to sociology discussed in this book is overtly simplistic, presenting the world as consisting of a series of very primitive cause-and-effect relationships. This is clearly not an accurate representation, and this approach is often rendered almost meaningless as a predictive model of society, with its complexly linked and interacting causes. This is especially relevant in the chapters analysing bourgeois economics, and the mathematical models of the money markets in particular. For readers with no scientific background this book may occasionally seem overwhelming, because in almost every chapter Ball concentrates rather intensely on one specific point, often covering an unnecessarily large number of pages and combining this with mathematical tables and graphs. As interesting as this book was to read, I am sure that it could have been condensed into rather fewer than its 600-plus pages without losing much depth. As critical as some of this review may have sounded, I do recommend Critical mass, which for all its limitations raises some very interesting questions. Chapters such as 'Order in Eden', in which Ball applies some of his ideas about statistical physics and game theory to the organisation of society and to ethics, raise fascinating points on the basis of cooperation, and prove again that science books can be just as absorbing as anything offered by the arts. Anthony Rose