User login


You are here

Statistical Mechanics of Humans

Libb Thims's picture

Boltzmann style gas particlesThis week I am working on a chronologically ordering of the 400+ thinkers of the past and present who have applied thermodynamics, whether chemical or statistical, to the humanities. In this group, germane to iMechanica, a few have specifically applied statistical mechanics to explain things such as crowd behavior, exchange of goods via money on small islands, traffic patterns, among numerous other order/disorder speculations on the microstates of society schemed on Boltzmann entropy models. I use the gas particle icon (adjacent) to distingish this group. Some of these mechanically-minded thinkers take years to discover, so I thought I would post a quick blog note here to stir up some possible discussion as to thinkers along these lines I might have missed in my list.

An example is American philosopher Oliver Reiser (1895-1974), who in his 1935 Philosophy and Conceptions of Modern Science, in commentary on Vilfredo Pareto’s conception of human society as a system of molecules or ‘constituents of a statistical ensemble’, notes that the ‘super-observer’ perspective would be needed to measure the ‘total state’ of a given social system, at a given time. Another example, someone who is difficult to discover (I still can't even find a picture of him), is Australian mechanical engineer Roy Henderson (c.1935-) who modeled crowd behavior and pedestrian traffic on fluid mechanics and ideal gas models; in his first paper, the highly-cited 1971 “The Statistics of Crowd Fluids”, he went out into the field and made actual measurments of the movements of college students on a campus and children on a playground, finding that in both cases their movements fit the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Henderson is discussed in Len Fisher's 2009 The Perfect Swarm. Prior to reading Fisher's book I had never even heard of Henderson. A more recent example is American mathematician Oscar Bolina's 2010 chapter “Society from the Statistical Mechanics Perspective” in Applications in Models, Artificial Neural Networks and Arts.

Please feel free to leave comment if you see any statistical mechanics (or fluid mechanics) minded humanities applications thinkers that I have missed, i.e. not listed here (HT pioneers, chronological) or here (HT pioneers, categorical) or here (HP pioneers). Over the next few weeks I am working to convert the categorical listing (second link) to the new photo-depicting chronological listing (first link) page.



Libb Thims's picture

An interesting one I found to day is Portuguese politician and economist Francisco Louca's 2001 chapter “Particles or humans? Econometric Quarrels on Newtonian Mechanics and the Social Realm”, on human particle models and thermodynamics, discusses how the late 19th century wave of mechanical analogies met with considerable resistance from some of the more established economists.

What is interesting is that this resistance, for some, is even more so in the modern day, as is evidenced by American philosopher and sociologist Steve Fuller's 2005 New Scientist article "I Am Not a Molecule", arguing against atomic reductionism in sociology, wherein he argues that the recent social physics attempts, in particular English chemical physicist Philip Ball’s 2004 Critical Mass, wherein masses of people are treated as bulk systems of atoms, is "infuriating" to the social scientists. Likewise, and more recently, this last September creator Mitch Garcia, a postdoctoral molecular pharmacology researcher at Berkeley, commented to me that the premise of applying the laws of chemistry to explain human interactions, such as was done by Goethe in 1809, is a "crackpot" subject. Fuller can be excused because he is an intelligent design advocate and believes that he was created by God rather than by chemical synthesis, but such objection coming from someone like Garcia is very puzzling?

Subscribe to Comments for "Statistical Mechanics of Humans"

Recent comments

More comments


Subscribe to Syndicate