cover image The Physics of Wall Street: 
A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable

The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable

James Owen Weatherall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-547-31727-4

UC-Irvine professor Weatherall looks at the role played by physicists and their ideas in financial markets, and argues persuasively that their contributions should be more widely used and recognized. Himself a physicist, philosopher, and mathematician, Weatherall suggests that the profession’s essential contribution to finance is to develop models of how financial markets operate using insights from science. Answering the concerns of skeptics like Warren Buffett, he cautions that physicists approach their models simply as useful tools, and that the 2008 Wall Street crisis partly reflects financiers’ difficulty in appreciating that models offer only a simplified representation of reality. Though this book is hardly beach reading, even laymen can enjoy Weatherall’s sketches of eccentric theoreticians and his examples of unexpected patterns gleaned from such unrelated fields as the study of migratory salmon and the discovery of nylon. Weatherall also adeptly simplifies information for the uninitiated, for example, illustrating chaos theory by discussing the behavior of gas particles and ants. Finally, Weatherall acknowledges that no single unified law can fully cover the ever-evolving nature of markets. While all attempts to divine the future smack a little of the Delphic oracle, anyone interested in how markets work will appreciate this serious hypothesis. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Jan.)