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)
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