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The covers of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (2000) and Mark Buchanan's 2001 Ubiquity, both employ the metaphor of a "match" in respect to social physics, and how small change or ignition by one person can trigger a social combustion reaction, e.g. Gavrilo Princip starting WWI by the firing of one bullet or the powerful vocal speeches of Hitler and WWII.

In things, match (LH:2), from French mèche meaning “candle wick”, refers to a material, such as cord, cambric, or wood stick, coated or impregnated with volatile chemicals, such as sulfur of phosphorus; the most-common variety are the “friction matches”, invented by John Walker (1826). In the 1850s, people, such as Herman Melville (1851) and Henry Carey (1858), began making social physics metaphors to people as matches.


In 1826, John Walker, an English chemist, noticed that certain sulfur-mixed chemicals would catch fire when rubbed on the heath, brainchild-conceived the idea of the friction "match", which could be made to catch fire by scraping along sand paper. Walker took wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum, wherein the sulfur served to communicate the flame to the wood. Walker sold these in a box of 50, for one shilling ($20 USD modern), along with a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it.[1]

The "wood" of the matchstick is a hydrocarbon composition. The following shows the reaction of methane, a gas, which is the simplest hydrocarbon:

which (a) makes a vacuum, and (b) releases energy in the form of heat, light, and pressure-volume work expansion in the process.

Social physics

In 1990s, Nature began to receive a number of articles likening social phenomena to physical phenomena, e.g. how one person can be a "match" that ignites a party, among other examples.

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell, in his The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the highest-selling book on Amazon in the 2000s, showed a match on the cover, which he attempts to liken to various human behaviors.[2]

In 2001, Marc Buchanan, in his Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen, shows a string of matching igniting, a reference the them of this book, which is that physics applies to the human history, a ramification of the fact that in the 1990s, while he was an editor for Nature, a large percentage of the papers landing on his desk were attempting to do social science along the lines of physics. The first match lit, is symbol of the “firing” of the bullet, shot by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian terrorist, a member of the Black Hand, into the body of Franz Ferdinand, Austro-Hungarian Archduke, which was said to have been the “match” or tipping point that, within thirty days, led to a global chain reaction that led to WWI, claiming ten million lives, and followup WWII, claiming another thirty million.[3]


In 2008, Marco Fantoni, an Italian artist, made the following photo, showing a hand holding both a new and burnt match, above and below an inking of the Clausius inequality:

Match (Clausius inequality).png

The theme or meaning of the image, is defined as follows: “the hand represents the capacity of the human mind to analyze and understand natural phenomena [such as] the power and imperative of irreversibility.”[4]

In 2018, the following image was circulating on Quora, employed to be an example of someone getting "burned out" in the rat race of the corporate world:[5]

Burned out.png

Corona | Social match?

In Mar 2020, several video animations[6] and flip-book video animations[7] began to appear likening a person to a "match" and the COVID virus to the flame, and the choice to social distance, illustrated by the match stick person stepping out of the line matches:

Match (Covid) 2.jpg

Here, to note, this "covid as flame" metaphor seems to not be fully correct, per reason that a match burning is a combustion reaction, i.e. a fuel, such as wood or hydrocarbon reaction with oxygen. The covid + human reaction, is a virus plus host type of reaction, wherein two hydrocarbon structures react in an oxygen environment, but not with the oxygen.

In short, the corona virus Vc plus human Hu host reaction, which as a mortality rate of 2.2 percent, might be modeled as follows, assuming that a 100 viral units contacted with a 100 humans, reacts to make 97.8 immune humans (and 2.2 deceased humans) and say 100K+ new viral unit products:

The corona-human reaction, in short, seems to be more of an "endothermic" reaction, or heat-absorbing reaction, i.e. a chilling reaction, as evidenced by pandemic lock down, economic freeze, and cessation rate, than an "exothermic" reaction?


The following are quotes:

“Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!
Herman Melville (1851), Moby Dick (§37: Sunset; character: Ahab) [8]
“The essential submission, of Carey, is the assertion that development is due, not to human effort, but to the automatic effect of certain external circumstances or events. It comes about in the manner in which a flame is produced when a match is struck against the side of the box. Surely, there are few who would accept this theory of culture-growth as realistic. But then the whole idea of ‘social heat’ is no more than a downright absurdity.”
Werner Stark (1962), The Fundamental Forms of Social Thought (pg. 147)[9]


  1. John Walker (inventor) – Wikipedia.
  2. Gladwell, Malcolm. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference. Publisher, 2006.
  3. Buchanan, Mark. (2001). Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen (Amz) (pg. 3). Publisher, 2002.
  4. Art thermodynamics – Hmolpedia 2020.
  5. Burned out – Hmolpedia 2020.
  6. Anon. (2020). “Animate Match-Burning Video” (YT), South China Morning Post, Mar 17.
  7. Anon. (2020). “Social Distancing Flipbook” (YT), TheFlippist, Mar 21.
  8. Stearns, Frank. (1906). Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Letters, Dairies, Reminisces and Extensive Biography. Badger.
  9. Stark, Werner. (1962). The Fundamental Forms of Social Thought (pg. 147). Publisher.

External links

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