Critical Mass

Critical Mass

I realize it has been some time since my last post. It has been a busy couple of weeks: birthday, high school reunions and family trips. I promise to post blog entries on a more regular basis.

I have a book to recommend, and I haven’t even gotten more than a third of the way through it. It’s called Critical Mass. Author Philip Ball asks the question, “Are there laws of nature that guide human affairs?” It’s a fascinating look at how the principles of statistics and physics might be applied to social, political and ecnomic fields to form a “physics of society.” He doesn’t look for rules that govern how individuals make decisions. Rather, he looks at how laws that can be applied to particles in mass on a large scale may have some application to understand how individuals act together “to understand the way [society] is and how it evolves.” The chapter “On Growth and Form” on its own is worth the price of the book.

At the moment, I am reading about two types of transformations: phase transitions (for instance, when water turns to ice – whereby the individual atoms themselves don’t change, only their collective behavior) and nonequlibrium bifucations. Ball has this to write about equlibrium.

“[Many of] the processes of change that go on around us … are ongoing processes – as if that stream of water were forever meandering in the hills, looking for a nice stable basin to fill, while rain forever replenishes its source. They are, in short, processes that are not in equilibrium and never will be, or at least in our lifetimes. Even when there seem to be stable starting and end points to a transition, like vapor and crystal, the form that results from the change can be complex and impossible to predict. That is because, in the case of a snowflake, the growth process takes place far away from the equilibrium states.”

This is the key takeaway sentence that comes later in the chapter: “The two kinds of transformation – phase transitions and nonequilibrium bifurcations – have features in common because they are both fundamentally of the same ilk: they are both collective modes of behavior arising from the mutual, local interactions of many individual components. There are conditions both in equilibrium and away from it for which these interactions can make one part of a system almost miraculously sensitive to what is happening far away. Every particle is suddenly in touch with all the others via intricate networks of mutual nudges – and all at once, a new steady state emerges.”