Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

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Are there any "laws of nature" that influence the ways in which humans behave and organize themselves? In the seventeenth century, tired of the civil war ravaging England, Thomas Hobbes decided that he would work out what kind of government was needed for a stable society. His approach was based not on utopian wishful thinking but rather on Galileo's mechanics to construct a theory of government from first principles. His solution is unappealing to today's society, yet Hobbes had sparked a new way of thinking about human behavior in looking for the "scientific" rules of society.

Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, and John Stuart Mill pursued this idea from different political perspectives. Little by little, however, social and political philosophy abandoned a "scientific" approach. Today, physics is enjoying a revival in the social, political and economic sciences. Ball shows how much we can understand of human behavior when we cease to try to predict and analyze the behavior of individuals and instead look to the impact of individual decisions-whether in circumstances of cooperation or conflict-can have on our laws, institutions and customs.

Lively and compelling, Critical Mass is the first book to bring these new ideas together and to show how they fit within the broader historical context of a rational search for better ways to live.

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About the author

Philip Ball is the author of, most recently, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (FSG, 2002), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in London with his wife.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Published on
May 16, 2006
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Pages
528
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ISBN
9781466806832
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Language
English
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Genres
Philosophy / Ethics & Moral Philosophy
Social Science / Sociology / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated. In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball takes a fresh look at that controversial history, contrasting the career of Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director of the institute when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.

Mixing history, science, and biography, Ball’s gripping exploration of the lives of scientists under Nazism offers a powerful portrait of moral choice and personal responsibility, as scientists navigated “the grey zone between complicity and resistance.” Ball’s account of the different choices these three men and their colleagues made shows how there can be no clear-cut answers or judgement of their conduct. Yet, despite these ambiguities, Ball makes it undeniable that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted no serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state.

Serving the Reich considers what this problematic history can tell us about the relationship of science and politics today. Ultimately, Ball argues, a determination to present science as an abstract inquiry into nature that is “above politics” can leave science and scientists dangerously compromised and vulnerable to political manipulation.
After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated. In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball takes a fresh look at that controversial history, contrasting the career of Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director of the institute when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.

Mixing history, science, and biography, Ball’s gripping exploration of the lives of scientists under Nazism offers a powerful portrait of moral choice and personal responsibility, as scientists navigated “the grey zone between complicity and resistance.” Ball’s account of the different choices these three men and their colleagues made shows how there can be no clear-cut answers or judgement of their conduct. Yet, despite these ambiguities, Ball makes it undeniable that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted no serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state.

Serving the Reich considers what this problematic history can tell us about the relationship of science and politics today. Ultimately, Ball argues, a determination to present science as an abstract inquiry into nature that is “above politics” can leave science and scientists dangerously compromised and vulnerable to political manipulation.
Though at first glance the natural world may appear overwhelming in its diversity and complexity, there are regularities running through it, from the hexagons of a honeycomb to the spirals of a seashell and the branching veins of a leaf. Revealing the order at the foundation of the seemingly chaotic natural world, Patterns in Nature explores not only the math and science but also the beauty and artistry behind nature’s awe-inspiring designs.

Unlike the patterns we create in technology, architecture, and art, natural patterns are formed spontaneously from the forces that act in the physical world. Very often the same types of pattern and form – spirals, stripes, branches, and fractals, say—recur in places that seem to have nothing in common, as when the markings of a zebra mimic the ripples in windblown sand. That’s because, as Patterns in Nature shows, at the most basic level these patterns can often be described using the same mathematical and physical principles: there is a surprising underlying unity in the kaleidoscope of the natural world. Richly illustrated with 250 color photographs and anchored by accessible and insightful chapters by esteemed science writer Philip Ball, Patterns in Nature reveals the organization at work in vast and ancient forests, powerful rivers, massing clouds, and coastlines carved out by the sea.

By exploring similarities such as those between a snail shell and the swirling stars of a galaxy, or the branches of a tree and those of a river network, this spectacular visual tour conveys the wonder, beauty, and richness of natural pattern formation.
With the recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, it seems safe to assume that the idea of being curious is alive and well in modern science—that it’s not merely encouraged but is seen as an essential component of the scientific mission. Yet there was a time when curiosity was condemned. Neither Pandora nor Eve could resist the dangerous allure of unanswered questions, and all knowledge wasn’t equal—for millennia it was believed that there were some things we should not try to know. In the late sixteenth century this attitude began to change dramatically, and in Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, Philip Ball investigates how curiosity first became sanctioned—when it changed from a vice to a virtue and how it became permissible to ask any and every question about the world. Looking closely at the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, Ball vividly brings to life the age when modern science began, a time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. In this entertaining and illuminating account of the rise of science as we know it, Ball tells of scientists both legendary and lesser known, from Copernicus and Kepler to Robert Boyle, as well as the inventions and technologies that were inspired by curiosity itself, such as the telescope and the microscope. The so-called Scientific Revolution is often told as a story of great geniuses illuminating the world with flashes of inspiration. But Curiosity reveals a more complex story, in which the liberation—and subsequent taming—of curiosity was linked to magic, religion, literature, travel, trade, and empire. Ball also asks what has become of curiosity today: how it functions in science, how it is spun and packaged for consumption, how well it is being sustained, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may continue to ask. Though proverbial wisdom tell us that it was through curiosity that our innocence was lost, that has not deterred us. Instead, it has been completely the contrary: today we spend vast sums trying to reconstruct the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of a pure desire to know. Ball refuses to let us take this desire for granted, and this book is a perfect homage to such an inquisitive attitude.
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