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Henry Thomas Buckle (1845, at age 24)

Henry Thomas Buckle (1845, at age 24)

[1] Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-62), British historian. one of the most avid British proponents of law-bound social physics; like many adherents of Comte’s positivist philosophy, he wanted to fortify the world of human affairs against the meddling influence of governments. For Buckle, the action of men however capricious they may appear are only part of one vast system of universal order which is the underlying doctrine of his History of civilization in England; the first two volumes of this ambitious work were published between 1857 and 1861. An eminent historian he was also a very strong amateur chess player.

[2] That is, those which remain in the postal system because they are badly addressed. Laplace had commented on how this was a constant fraction of the total turnover of the postal service.

Today, physicist regard the application of statistical mechanics to social phenomena as a new and risky venture. Few, it seems, recall how the process originated the other way round in the days when physical science and social science were the twin siblings of a mechanistic philosophy, and when it was not in the least disreputable to invoke the habits of people to explain the habits of inanimate particles.

Maxwell began his work on the kinetic theory of gases shortly after reading Buckle [1]; a few months after the publication of Buckle’s great work, Maxwell wrote to his friend Lewis Campbell:

One night I read 160 pages of Buckle’s History of civilization - a bumptious book, strong positivism, emancipation from exploded notions and that style of thing, but a great deal of actually original matter, the result of fertile study, and not mere brainspinning.

When Maxwell came to study the problem of gases in which the constituent particles were constantly engaging in collisions that none could hope to follow, he recognized this as a problem of the same class as those that Buckle had pondered in society, in which the immediate causes of individual behaviour must forever be inscrutable. As he indicated in 1873, the experiences of social statisticians lent him confidence that his statistical approach could extract order from the microscopic chaos:

... those uniformities which we observe in our experiments with quantities of matter containing millions of millions of molecules are uniformities of the same kind as those explained by Laplace and wondered at by Buckle arising from the slumping together of multitudes of causes each of which is by no means uniform with the others.

Maxwell’s velocity distribution was merely an assumption until Ludwig Boltzmann showed in 1872 that any group of moving particles in gas must converge on this distribution. Boltzmann too knew of Buckle’s work and was not slow to draw analogies between his particles and the individuals in the social censuses that furnished Buckle’s statistics:

The molecules are like to many individuals, having the most various states of motion, and the properties of gases only remain unaltered because the number of these molecules which on the average have a given state of motion is constant.

Boltzmann likened the gas laws, a statement of the invariance of statistical averages, to the uniform profits of insurance companies. In 1886 Maxwell’s friend Peter Guthrie Tait compared the statistical approach of the kinetic theory with:

... the extraordinary steadiness with which the number of such totally unpredictable, through not uncommon phenomena as suicides, twin or triple births, dead letters [2] etc., in any populous country, are maintained year after year.

Philip Ball: Critical mass, How one thing leads to another, Arrow Books, London, 2004.































Krešimir J. Adamić