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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen Reprint Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 59 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0609809983
ISBN-10: 0609809989
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #297,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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