society conditioned scientists to think of the universe in mechanical terms. Descartes, Galileo, and other pioneers of modern science advocated a mechanical, cause-and-effect view of the cosmos that ultimately led to Newton’s definitive system of physics, published in his Principia in 1687. It was only natural that the implications of mechanism for life and society attracted the attention of other 17th-century thinkers. One was Thomas Hobbes, whose famous work Leviathan described the state of society that (Hobbes believed) maximized the well-being of all its members. Conveniently for Hobbes, a supporter of the British monarchy, his conclusion was that the people should turn over control of society to an absolute monarch. Otherwise, he argued, a dog-eat-dog mentality of unrestrained human nature would guarantee life to be “nasty, brutish, and short.”
In an intriguing paper, though (published in Physica A), Philip Ball points out that Hobbes’s questionable conclusion was not as important as the methods he used to reach it. The Hobbes approach was to assess the interacting preferences of various individuals and figure out how best to achieve the best deal for everybody. The resulting theoretical framework, Ball says, “could be recast without too much effort” as a Nash equilibrium maximizing the power of each individual. As such, Hobbes’s Leviathan could be seen as an early effort to understand society mathematically, with the prescient indication that something like game theory would be a good mathematical instrument for the task.
Real math entered the story a little later, as the science of statistics was invented—for the very purpose of quantifying various aspects of society. The scientist and politician Sir William Petty, a student of Hobbes, advocated the scientific study of society in a quantitative way. His friend John Graunt began compiling tables of social data, such as mortality figures, in the 1660s. Graunt and others began to keep track of births and deaths and analyzed the data much like the way that baseball fans pore over batting averages today. By a century later, in the times leading up to the French Revolution, gathering social statistics had become a widespread practice, usually undertaken in the belief that studying such social