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How Nature Works: the science of self-organized criticality [Paperback]

by Per Bak
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 1999 038798738X 978-0387987385 1
Self-organized criticality, the spontaneous development of systems to a critical state, is the first general theory of complex systems with a firm mathematical basis. This theory describes how many seemingly desperate aspects of the world, from stock market crashes to mass extinctions, avalanches to solar flares, all share a set of simple, easily described properties. " . . . a 'must read' . . . Bak writes with such ease and lucidity, and his ideas are so intriguing . . . essential reading for those interested in complex systems . . . it will reward a sufficiently skeptical reader" -NATURE " . . . presents the theory (self-organized criticality) in a form easily absorbed by the non-mathematically inclined reader" -BOSTON BOOK REVIEW "I picture Bak as a kind of scientific musketeer; flamboyant, touchy, full of swagger and ready to join every fray . . . His book is written with panache. The style is brisk, the content stimulating. I recommend it as a bracing experience" -NEW SCIENTIST

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How Nature Works: the science of self-organized criticality + Self-Organized Criticality: Emergent Complex Behavior in Physical and Biological Systems (Cambridge Lecture Notes in Physics)
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Editorial Reviews Review

. . . In print, at least, what might seem arrogant comes across as a kind of innocent, childlike enthusiasm, a lack of concern for anything but the sheer joy of figuring things out. His ruthless simplifications of geology, evolution, and neurology pay off because, as Bak notes, his models describe behavior that is common across these domains. This universality means that trampling across others' turf is not only acceptable, but almost mandatory, if the underlying principles are to be exposed. Finally, for the most part, Bak wants the reader to grasp the basic logic of his arguments; only rarely does he try to persuade with flights of poetic language or brute intellectual authority. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


...[Bak's] book is written with panache. The style is brisk, the content stimulating. -- New Scientist

...a must read...essential reading for those interested in complex systems. -- Nature

Product Details

  • Paperback: 212 pages
  • Publisher: Copernicus; 1 edition (May 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038798738X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0387987385
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #314,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply in a Class by Itself May 30, 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I couldn't let the previous reviewer's comments stand without comment. I can't believe the reviewer read the same book that I did. Bak's treatment is detailed, clear, and balanced. When he is enthusiastic he let's you know exactly why, leaving you free to make up your own mind. The fact that most of the studies he describes were published in Physical Review Letters might tell you something about their quality. The book provides wonderful examples of the role of models in science, much better than any I've come across in rather extensive search for materials for a course on the Nature of Science I help teach. I'm reading the book for the third time (not because it is difficult to read, but simply because it repays rereading) and I admire it more with each reading. If you want to understand models that display Self Organized Criticality, this book is without question the place to go.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Applied Self Organized Critically December 16, 2001
Per Bak's book How Nature Works is about the theory of self organizing criticality and its applicability to a variety of questions and problems in several sciences. It is an interesting and quick read for the most part. I have read other books on self organized criticality that were far less understandable and more limited in their scope of applicability.
Although there were portions of Bak's work that were a little belabored-I found my interest in sand piles began to sag after the initial discussion, for instance-much of the rest of the book was enlightening. The discussion in Chapter 1 of the contrast between the clarity and simplicity of the laws of physics and the complexity and unpredictability of nature was particularly interesting as was the discussion of the difference between chaos and complexity. His explanation in Chapter 2 of the theory of self organized criticality and the history of its development is far clearer than I found Stuart Kauffman's to be. It might make a better starting place for anyone wishing to understand the theory a little better before going on to Kauffman's and other books on the subject.
Essentially the theme of the book involves the self organization of much of the universe, from stars and volcanoes to traffic jams and economics, into critical states sustained as stable systems until they evolve through cascade events or what Bak calls avalanches (after his sand pile paradigm) or catastrophes. Bak explains that the system maintains itself along a critical line, above which chaos rules and nothing can be predicted and below which nothing happens so there is nothing to predict!
Chapter 5 which deals with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions interested me in particular because of my own study of geology.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book but... February 21, 2001
By A Customer
This is both a wonderful book and an awful one with two interleaved narratives. I've read the book cover to cover and some of the key chapters several times over. I've also replicated some of the key simulation results on a personal computer. Much to the credit of Per Bak's clear explanations designed to simplify he eminently succeeds at his task of making his point: complexity in nature can be simple to understand. Bak points out the existence of power laws in self-organized critical systems occurring in nature and he gives the reader the ability to model them using simple numerical methods. We could call them "back of the envelope calculations" if the were analytic. All of this he manages to do without the need for the reader ever to go to the published literature. In the process of doing that, he does not completely strip off the plausibility of the models. In some sense it is quite a tour de force.
So what could be awful about such a wonderful book? It would be a great world if those who make significant advances in science were magnanimous. While one narrative in Per Bak's book is all about self-organized criticality, the "other" narrative comes out all but too self-serving. Per Bak relishes in his moment in the limelight of science as he uses every bit of it as a platform to offer judgmental and patronizing opinions about every other field of science (including his own physics) and many colleagues he's worked with or benefited from the insight of... When convenient, reductionism is good but when not convenient, reductionism is vile. Big Science is mindless, except perhaps for this or perhaps for that... A lot of this "other narrative" really sounds like small talk around the departmental coffee pot with a few smirks and some wry smiles.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Student response: SOC it to me! January 11, 2000
I used this book (along with Stu Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe, Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law", and Cohen & Stewart's "Collapse of Chaos") for a freshman seminar at Duke University on "Emergence of Complexity". My students really enjoyed Bak's book. It gave them a whole new perspective on the nature of physical and biological systems and on the nature of scientific models. Most importantly, their short essays on various parts of the book showed that Bak's enthusiasm for his subject was contagious. Students appreciated Bak's creative use of simple models to introduce new ways of thinking about a wide range of phenomena.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Not impressed with this book
The book sensationalizes the topic while really having nothing of significance to say. I only read it in preparation for a presentation I had to give. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Thomas W.
"To see a World in a grain of sand..."

(William Blake - "Auguries of Innocence")

A new theory of Complex Systems in embryo? Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jet Lagged
5.0 out of 5 stars Sand Piles to Dinosaurs
The author is the discoverer of Self-Organized Criticality, and this is a easy and not to long book to read. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Automated Trader
4.0 out of 5 stars Terry in Oz
I felt that the book was well written given that many of the concepts detailed were rather complex and advanced. Read more
Published 19 months ago by terry saillard
5.0 out of 5 stars Criticality Just Might Be Reality
Per Bak, sadly now deceased, in How Nature Works wrote a book of considerable intellectual strength, but one quite accessible to the general reader. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Tony Harper
5.0 out of 5 stars Just as much about the process of discovery
It's a short book that takes a long time to read. He explains topics well and simply. There's very little posturing. Read more
Published on May 24, 2011 by Todd Hoff & Linda Coleman
5.0 out of 5 stars A different perspective on most things
How Nature works is a fascinating book. I first heard of the late Per Bak and his sandpile theories when I a year ago or so read an article by Koubatis and Schönberger (1995)... Read more
Published on March 20, 2009 by Jan Husdal
5.0 out of 5 stars Intuitive & makes you think of universal laws
This book is a great attempt at finding some universality based on systems in a "critical" state, with departures from such state taking place in a manner that follows power laws. Read more
Published on February 8, 2005 by N N Taleb
4.0 out of 5 stars a good book from a great scientist
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding how Nature works. Nature by far is bursty, intermittent, diverse, highly inhomogeneous both in time and space. Read more
Published on January 23, 2005 by Dante Chialvo
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious, but hollow inside
Per Bak claimed to have invented a fundamentally new way of looking at nature by ascribing an almost mystical significance to ``power-law'' distributions (for the non-technical... Read more
Published on March 12, 2003
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