Physics of Society

2011 and All That

A talk from 2012 on why 2011 should make us take the physics of society seriously.
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The physics of society

The physics of society: a talk delivered at the London School of Economics, March 2003.
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A symposium at the London School of Economics – 6 March 2003
Philip Ball – Nature, 4-6 Crinan St., London, N1 9XW, UK


In economics, business, society and politics, institutions and structures typically arise from the interaction and consensus of many individuals. Although these modes of organization are usually subject to planning and legal constraints, there now seems good reason to believe that their properties and behaviours may be dominated by factors that arise unbidden and are very difficult to control. Several centuries of economic theory still do not suffice to avoid market slumps and recessions. Most businesses fail or disappear within a few years. Free markets do not seem to flatten wealth distributions. Harsh penal systems do not systematically and unequivocally reduce crime.

The physical modelling of society

The physical modelling of society – a historical perspective: a talk presented at Messina, Sicily (2001) and subsequently published in Physica A 314, 1-14 (2002). Download PDF


A talk presented at ‘Horizons in Complex Systems’ Messina, Sicily, Italy
6-8 December 2001 and subsequently published in Physica A 314, 1-14 (2002)
Philip Ball – Nature, 4-6 Crinan St., London, N1 9XW, UK

By seeking to uncover the rules of collective human activities, today’s statistical physicists are aiming to return to their roots. Statistics originated in the study of social numbers in the seventeenth century, and the discovery of statistical invariants in data on births and deaths, crimes and marriages led some scientists and philosophers to conclude that society was governed by immutable ‘natural’ laws beyond the reach of governments, of which the gaussian ‘error curve’ became regarded as the leitmotif. While statistics flourished as a mathematical tool of all the sciences in the nineteenth century, it provoked passionate responses from philosophers, novelists and social commentators. Social statistics also guided Maxwell and Boltzmann towards the utilization of probability distributions in the development of the kinetic theory of gases, the foundation of statistical mechanics. …

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