While Asimov’s vision remains a science fiction dream, it is now closer to reality than probably even he would have thought possible. The statistical approach inaugurated by Maxwell has today become physicists’ favorite weapon for invading the social sciences and describing human actions with math. Physicists have applied the statistical approach to analyzing the economy, voting behavior, traffic flow, the spread of disease, the transmission of opinions, and the paths people take when fleeing in panic after somebody shouts Fire! in a crowded theater.
But here’s the thing. This isn’t a new idea, and physicists didn’t have it first. In fact, Maxwell, who was the first to devise the statistical description of molecules, got the idea to use statistics in physics from social scientists applying math to society! So before statistical physicists congratulate themselves for showing the way to explaining the social sciences, they should pause to reflect on the history of their field. As the science journalist Philip Ball has observed, “by seeking to uncover the rules of collective human activities, statistical physicists are aiming to return to their roots.”3
In fact, efforts to apply science and math to society have a rich history, extending back several centuries. And that history contains hints of ideas that can, in retrospect, be seen as similar to key aspects of game theory—foreshadowing an eventual convergence of all these fields in the quest for a Code of Nature.
The idea of finding a science of society long predates Asimov. In a sense it goes back to ancient times, of course, resembling at least partially the old notion of a “natural law” of human behavior or a Code of Nature. In early modern times, the idea received renewed impetus from the success of Newtonian physics, stimulating the efforts of Adam Smith and others as described in Chapter 1. Even before Newton, though, the rise of mechanistic physical science inspired several philosophers to consider a similarly rigorous approach to society.
In medieval times, the importance of the mechanical clock to