Philip Ball

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Philip Ball
Born1962 (age 59–60)
Alma mater
OccupationScience writer
Notable work
Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

Philip Ball (born 1962) is a British science writer. For over twenty years he has been an editor of the journal Nature for which he continues to write regularly.[1] He now writes a regular column in Chemistry World. He has contributed to publications ranging from New Scientist[2] to the New York Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times and New Statesman. He is the regular contributor to Prospect magazine,[3] and also a columnist for Chemistry World, Nature Materials and BBC Future. He has broadcast on many occasions on radio and TV, and in June 2004 he presented a three-part serial on nanotechnology, Small Worlds, on BBC Radio 4.


Ball's most popular book is the 2004 Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. It examines a wide range of topics including the business cycle, random walks, phase transitions, bifurcation theory, traffic flow, Zipf's law, Small world phenomenon, catastrophe theory, the Prisoner's dilemma. The overall theme is one of applying modern mathematical models to social and economic phenomena.[4]

In 2011, he wrote The Music Instinct in which he discusses how we make sense of sound and how music entices us. He outlines what is known and still unknown about how music has such an emotional impact, and why it seems indispensable to humanity. He has since argued that music is emotively powerful due to its ability to mimic humans and through setting up expectations in pitch and harmony and then violating them.[5]

Ball holds a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University. As of 2008 he has lived in London.


  • Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier (1994), ISBN 0-691-00058-1
  • Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century (1997), ISBN 0-691-02733-1
  • The Self-made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature (1999), ISBN 0-19-850244-3
  • H2O: A Biography of Water (1999), ISBN 0-297-64314-2 (published in the U.S. as Life's Matrix)
  • Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules (2001), ISBN 0-19-280214-3 (republished as Molecules: A Very Short Introduction (2003), OUP, ISBN 978-0192854308)
  • Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (2001), ISBN 0-670-89346-3
  • The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements (2002), ISBN 0-19-284100-9 (republished as The Elements: A Very Short Introduction (2004), OUP, ISBN 978-0192840998)
  • Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (2004), ISBN 0-434-01135-5
  • Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry (2005), ISBN 0-85404-674-7
  • The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (2006), ISBN 0-434-01134-7[6]
  • The Sun and Moon Corrupted, a novel, Portobello Books Ltd, (2008), ISBN 978-1-84627-108-3
  • Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral (2008), ISBN 978-0-06-115429-4
  • Shapes, Nature's Patterns, a Tapestry in three Parts (2009), ISBN 978-0-19-923796-8
  • Flow, Nature's Patterns, a Tapestry in three Parts (2009), ISBN 978-0-19-923797-5
  • Branches, Nature's Patterns, a Tapestry in three Parts (2009), ISBN 978-0-19-923798-2
  • The Music Instinct (2010), ISBN 978-1-84792-088-1
  • Unnatural, The Heretical Idea of Making People (2011), ISBN 978-1-84-792152-9
  • Why Society is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-first Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science (2012), ISBN 978-3-642-28999-6
  • Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (2013), ISBN 978-0-226-04579-5
  • Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler (2014), ISBN 978-0-226-20457-4[7] Read an excerpt.
  • Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (2015), University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-23889-0; (2014), Random House[8]
  • Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does (2016), ISBN 978-0-226-33242-0
  • The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China (2017), ISBN 978-0-226-36920-4
  • Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different (2018), ISBN 978-1-847-92457-5
  • How to Grow a Human: Adventures in Who We Are and How We Are Made (2019), ISBN 978-0008331771


His book Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another won the 2005 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books,[9] and his book Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler (The Bodley Head) was on the shortlist for the 2014 prize.[10] In 2019 he won the Kelvin Medal and Prize.


  1. ^ "Philip Ball - Science writer". Philip Ball. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  2. ^ Ball, Philip. "Engineering light: Pull an image from nowhere". New Scientist. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  3. ^ Ball, Philip. "Curse of cursive handwriting". Prospect Magazine. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  4. ^ Ball, Philip. (2004). Critical Mass - How One Thing Leads to Another. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  5. ^ How The Light Gets In, 2013. "Music's Mystery". Institute of Art and Ideas. Retrieved 19 November 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Shackelford, Jole (2007). "Paracelsus, Healer of the German Reformation". Chemical Heritage Magazine. 25 (3): 45. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  7. ^ Mangravite, Andrew (2015). "Magical Thinking". Distillations. 1 (4): 44–45. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  8. ^ Vickers, Salley (11 August 2014). "Review of Invisible: The Dangerous Lure of the Unseen by Philip Ball". The Guardian.
  9. ^ "Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books". Royal Society. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  10. ^ Melissa Hogenboom (10 November 2014). "Materials book wins Royal Society Winton Prize". BBC. Retrieved 11 November 2014.

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