“Only Connect!”

Niall Ferguson is a distinguished historian of Scottish origin who specializes in big arguments, and contrarian claims.  His books are always provocative, frequently infuriating, and often (if not always) correct in their analyses.  Unlike most academic historians, he genuinely understands issues of business and finance, both in the contemporary world and in the historic past, and treats money matters with the respect they unquestionably deserve.  Also setting him apart from most academics is his frequent sympathy for conservative and right-wing causes, a tendency encouraged by his marriage to anti-Islamist provocatrix Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ferguson’s latest book, The Square and the Tower, is an important and wide-ranging text with a significant historical argument that will be widely influential.  His argument daringly combines historical writing with social science and information science, and specifically builds on the vital technique of social-network analysis.  If you want to understand why somebody is important in a particular era, he argues, it is very useful to chart their linkages to other individuals, to see how they fit into the larger web of relationships.  Who knows whom, and how?  How strong are the bonds between two nodes within the network, as compared with their ties to others?  Those connections can take many forms—family...

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