Why Society is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-first Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science

Springer Science & Business Media
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Society is complicated. But this book argues that this does not place it beyond the reach of a science that can help to explain and perhaps even to predict social behaviour. As a system made up of many interacting agents – people, groups, institutions and governments, as well as physical and technological structures such as roads and computer networks – society can be regarded as a complex system. In recent years, scientists have made great progress in understanding how such complex systems operate, ranging from animal populations to earthquakes and weather. These systems show behaviours that cannot be predicted or intuited by focusing on the individual components, but which emerge spontaneously as a consequence of their interactions: they are said to be ‘self-organized’. Attempts to direct or manage such emergent properties generally reveal that ‘top-down’ approaches, which try to dictate a particular outcome, are ineffectual, and that what is needed instead is a ‘bottom-up’ approach that aims to guide self-organization towards desirable states.

This book shows how some of these ideas from the science of complexity can be applied to the study and management of social phenomena, including traffic flow, economic markets, opinion formation and the growth and structure of cities. Building on these successes, the book argues that the complex-systems view of the social sciences has now matured sufficiently for it to be possible, desirable and perhaps essential to attempt a grander objective: to integrate these efforts into a unified scheme for studying, understanding and ultimately predicting what happens in the world we have made. Such a scheme would require the mobilization and collaboration of many different research communities, and would allow society and its interactions with the physical environment to be explored through realistic models and large-scale data collection and analysis. It should enable us to find new and effective solutions to major global problems such as conflict, disease, financial instability, environmental despoliation and poverty, while avoiding unintended policy consequences. It could give us the foresight to anticipate and ameliorate crises, and to begin tackling some of the most intractable problems of the twenty-first century.

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About the author

Philip Ball http://www.philipball.co.uk/ is a very well known science writer, former editor for Nature, and author of many popular science books.
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Additional Information

Springer Science & Business Media
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Published on
Jun 9, 2012
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Business & Economics / Economics / General
Computers / Data Processing
Language Arts & Disciplines / Communication Studies
Language Arts & Disciplines / Library & Information Science / General
Science / Physics / Astrophysics
Science / System Theory
Social Science / Methodology
Social Science / Research
Technology & Engineering / General
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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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