Tipping Point

The idea of a tipping point came into common parlance along with chaos theory, the hundredth monkey, and black swans during the computer age. But it was less than a hundred years ago the idea had sketchy scientific support, and was regarded with skepticism.

In 1920, in a world recovering from a global flu pandemic, a German physicist named Wilhelm Lenz set out to understand why heating a magnet past a certain temperature causes it to suddenly lose its attractive power, as Pierre Curie had discovered 25 years earlier. Lenz thought up a simple model, in which each atom in a crystal is a tiny magnet, and its energy depends on how it is oriented compared to adjacent atoms in the crystal. He tasked his graduate student, Ernst Ising, with working out the details.

Gif of a grid of arrows whose directions flip up and down.

Read more from Charlie Wood, writing at Quanta Magazine

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