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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen Paperback – November 5, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0609809983 ISBN-10: 0609809989 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (November 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609809989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609809983
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

“Buchanan succeeds where others fail. . . . [He] is able to communicate this novel way of thinking without compromising scientific integrity.”—New Scientist

“I grabbed this book and turned the pages. Does Buchanan get it right? Does he really understand how this might change the way we look at the world? He does. This is the book I wish I had written.”
—Per Bak, author of How Nature Works

“Ubiquity explains better than any previous book why many fields of the natural world and human life are unpredictable.”
Financial Times (London)

“There are many subtleties and twists in the story to which we shall come later in this book, but the basic message, roughly speaking, is simple: The peculiar and exceptionally unstable organization of the critical state does indeed seem to be ubiquitous in our world. Researchers in the past few years have found its mathematical fingerprints in the workings of all the upheavals I’ve mentioned so far, as well as in the spreading of epidemics, the flaring of traffic jams, the patterns by which instructions trickle down from managers to workers in an office, and in many other things. At the heart of our story, then, lies the discovery that networks of things of all kinds—atoms, molecules, species, people, and even ideas—have a marked tendency to organize themselves along similar lines. On the basis of this insight, scientists are finally beginning to fathom what lies behind tumultuous events of all sorts, and to see patterns at work where they have never seen them before.”
—from the Introduction

About the Author

Mark Buchanan is a science writer who has worked on the editorial staff of Nature and as a features editor for New Scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Virginia. This is his first book.


From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

The book is excellently written -- an easy and engaging read.
Mercenary Trader
The time between avalanches is extremely variable, making it essentially impossible to predict when the next avalanche will occur.
Robert Adler
This is a book that will present a new way of viewing, something to think about, and I think most would enjoy reading it.
"fenfra"

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Robert Adler on June 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
Who hasn't wondered why catastrophes happen, and if they can be predicted or avoided? Economists and investors try to understand why markets crash, seismologists struggle to understand and predict great earthquakes, and historians speculate why empires crumble and global cataclysms such as the First and Second World Wars occur.
Physicist and science journalist Mark Buchanan brings the science of what he calls "historical physics"--the study of systems that are far from equilibrium and, as he puts it poised "on the knife edge of instability" to bear on these questions.
He describes a much-studied model of such catastrophe-prone systems, a simple sandpile. Build a sandpile by dropping one grain at a time on the top of the heap. It will eventually reach a critical state at which a grain can either make the pile a bit taller or start an avalanche, small or large. Scientists experimenting with real and virtual sandpiles have observed several important regularities:
1. The time between avalanches is extremely variable, making it essentially impossible to predict when the next avalanche will occur.
2. The size of avalanches is also extremely variable, making it essentially impossible to predict whether the next avalanche will be tiny or huge.
3. A big avalanche doesn't need a big cause; one grain can trigger a sandpile-flattening event.
4. Avalanche sizes follow what mathematicians call a power law. What that means is that large events happen less frequently than small ones according to a fixed ratio. For sandpiles the frequency goes down by a factor of 2.14 for each doubling of avalanche size. For earthquakes the frequency goes down by a factor of four for each doubling of released energy.
5.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Paul A. Schumann Jr. on May 12, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is not a hard book to read, but it is difficult to integrate into the way you look at the world. Mark Buchanan is a science writer who has worked on the editorial staff of Nature and as a features editor New Scientist. In this book he is writing about the development of a growing field of physics - complexity. Complexity is chaos in critical states. A critical state exists in a system that is not in equilibrium. You may have heard of the "butterfly effect". That is, there is a possibility that a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can cause a storm in Europe weeks later. However, that same butterfly can flap all in wants inside a closed balloon with no effects, other than maybe slightly increasing the temperature of the air in the balloon. The air inside the balloon is in equilibrium, even though the molecules exhibit chaotic behavior. The atmosphere is in a critical, i.e. non-equilibrium, state. A small perturbation somewhere can lead to very big changes.

If the air inside the balloon is in equilibrium, its past, present and future are all the same. It has no "history". When things are in non-equilibrium, history matters since what happens now can never be washed away but affects the entire course of the future.

The applications of this model extend from the piling of grains of sand in an hourglass to economics.

"Despite what scientists had previously believed, might the critical state in fact be quite common? Could riddling lines of instability of a logically equivalent sort run through the Earth's crust, for example, through forests and ecosystems, and perhaps even through the somewhat more abstract "fabric" of our economics?
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By B. B. Jenitez on May 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is the book that I would like to have written. Although being a popular account, it is scientifically accurate and carefull in its suggestions, always informing the reader what is consolidated science and what is scientific speculation.
In contrast to a previous review, I have read all the pages of this book. Since I am a physicist working in this very subject (self-organized criticality), I probably can say that if someone use the example of a Gaussian (bell shaped curve) to illustrate that the power laws discussed in the book are trivial, well, this person have not understood anything.
Gaussians have exponential decays, so they predict that very larg events (catastrophes) will occur with vanishing probability. For example, the heigh of people is distributed as a Gaussian. What is the probability of finding a 3 meter person?
Zero.
Distributions wich have power law tails, depending on the power exponent, may have no well defined variance or even average value. This means that there is no "average" earthquake, and that very big earthquakes (or other cathastrophes) are not "acts of God" but have a no desprezible chance of occur due to simple chain reactions of events.
I have introduced my students to ideas like critical states and modern physical thinking by using this book. So, I can recommend it to any reader without reserve. The emphasis by the author that critical chain reactions of events must be accounted by any view of History and Society is an important mind tool in our increasing interconnected (and, because it, prone to global chain reactions) world.
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