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Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think Hardcover – October 23, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Earthquakes, market crashes, hurricanes, wars: are these random forces of nature, or foreseeable blips on the radar screen of history? In this lively book, science journalist Mark Buchanan introduces readers to a developing branch of science that looks for order in what seems to be utmost chaos.

In the late 1980s, three physicists set out to investigate the apparently inherent instability of complex systems. In a process that Buchanan illustrates by analogy with a sand pile, they discovered that these systems tend to arrive at a "critical state," after which point any random grain falling in just the right place can touch off an avalanche. So it is, Buchanan shows us, with the onset of world wars, economic shocks, traffic gridlock, and other dislocating events--all of which this new science may one day help predict.

In clear and vigorous prose, Buchanan brings readers insights from nonequilibrium physics, offering a new way of seeing the "fingers of instability" that poke through the world's fabric--and that in turn make it such an interesting place. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Buchanan, an editor and writer for Nature and New Scientist, proposes to apply so-called nonequilibrium physics to cataclysms in human history. This form of physics involves the study of systems in perpetual imbalance, a state that makes it possible for a small shock to trigger a disproportionately huge response. Buchanan thinks human beings are just such systems, and that the earth itself is another, and that their shared history earthquakes, eclipsed economies, extinctions, etc. reflects it. Particularly interesting is his chapter on revolutionary changes in intellectual ideas, in which he discusses a study quantifying "cataclysmic" shifts in thought by tracking citations in scientific papers. Buchanan allows how daunting a task it is to quantify history and acknowledges critics who say such an approach tempts oversimplification and overlooks the role of free will in human affairs. Buchanan notes, "It is at least a step toward greater understanding to recognize that the tumultuous course of humanity need not be the product of some deeply malignant human madness, but of ordinary human nature and simple mathematics," and thus finishes his book with questions rather than raw numbers. (On-sale: Oct. 23)

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 Amer ed edition (October 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 060960810X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609608104
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,162,021 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
CERTAIN complex systems, under certain circumstances, have been discovered to behave in mathematically simple, similar ways. In 'critical states', there is no reason to look for specific causes of great events. The smallest force can have gigantic effects and sudden upheavals can strike seemingly out of nowhere. The approximate frequency of such upheavals can be predicted, but not when they will happen or what size they will be.
Mark Buchanan's book reviews the current work on the subject to highlight a deep similarity between the upheavals that affect our lives in both physical and human systems. The book warmly communicates this novel way of thinking without compromising scientific integrity. This is made possible because the author is not only a science writer but also a physicist.
Buchanan starts by discussing the principle of ubiquity which is that one should focus on the simplest mathematical game belonging to a same universal class. Details are not important in deciding the outcome because things in a critical state have no inherent typical scale in either time or space. The important issue which this book highlights is that in a critical state, something known as a `power law' comes into play to reveal a hidden order and simplicity behind complexity. A power law means that there is no such thing as a normal or typical event, and that there is no qualitative difference between the larger and smaller fluctuations.
Buchanan illustrates this with the following example. If one takes a handful of rice (or sand) and drops the grains one by one on to a table top, a pile of rice is built soon. The pile will not grow taller for ever, though. Eventually the addition of one more grain will cause an avalanche.
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Format: Hardcover
Buchanan's book Ubiquity is a fascinating volume on self organizing criticality. It bears a striking resemblance to Per Bak's book How Nature Works, and Bak's research is cited a number of times throughout the text. As with the Bak work, Buchanan's covers a wide variety of subjects from wars to stock market fluctuations. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of evolution and the episodic character of mass extinctions, since I've read a number of books on the subject of the K-T boundary extinction.
Like Bak, Buchanan points out that much that appears to have historical significance and specific causation, while it makes for good story telling, has little predictive value about it. He uses Bak's sandpile experiments to illustrate the futility of such efforts by creating a "Sandman's view" of catastrophe (pp. 179-180). He imagines a catastrophic sand slide from the point of view of a tiny survivor to whom events seem to have been "due" to negligence on the part of the individuals responsible for a steep area. From the point of view of the sandpile, though, the information required for such control would have to be staggeringly large and nearly perfect in order to have predicted the slide and its effects. Had some minute change to the pile been possible at the putative disaster site, a similar slide could have occurred elsewhere. Then the caretakers of the sandpile would have been blamed for causing a disaster rather than preventing one. One can see in this parable why politicians in the real world tend to seek their own ultimate good rather than that of their constituents or of the environment itself. The vagaries of prediction caused by the intertwining of particulars and the vastness of the data involved put such individuals in impossible positions.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the book Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan, processes as diverse as forest fire size, stacking rice grains, market fluctuation, scientific paper citations, species extinction history, epidemiology, sizes of wars and earthquake severity are said to generate occasional catastrophic behavior following similar statistical behavior. Buchanan presents these arguments in a very readable style at a level that can be grasped by the layman. I found the physical descriptions of the processes fascinating. The phenomena is, indeed, ubiquitous. Repeatedly, we find that, if X measures severity and f is the frequency histogram of occurrence, then numerous processes containing a catastrophic component adhere to a linear log-log plot with negative slope. Although unsaid in the book, probably to allow access to a wider audience, the underlying probability density function of the ubiquitous process is a Pareto random variable with probability density function f(x)=(a/b)*(b/x)^(a+1) for x>b and zero otherwise. The enormously fat tails of this distribution allow the outlier-like catastrophic events described in the book. Taking the log of both sides of the density function gives log[f(x)] = -(a+1)*log(x) + constant which is a line of negative slope on a log-log plot. If U is a uniform random variable on (0,1), then X=b*U^(-1/a) is a Pareto RV. Using this, plots similar to the time series and log-log plots in Ubiquity can be straightforwardly simulated. Googling "Pareto distribution" gives a plurality of interesting web accounts, many mathematically deeper, of this remarkable phenomena made wonderfully accessible by Buchanan.
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