- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (November 5, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0609809989
- ISBN-13: 978-0609809983
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 62 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #158,255 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen Reprint Edition
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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.
Top customer reviews
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? Think of those first few crumbling rocks near Kobe, or that first insignificant dip in prices that triggered the stock market crash of 1987. Might these have been "sand grains" acting at another level? Could the special organization of the critical state explain why the world at large seems so susceptible to unpredictable upheavals?
A decade of research by hundreds of other physicists has explored this question and taken the initial idea much further. 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 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 here where they have never seen them before."
The mathematical models of this science don't really exist yet, and may never exist. We have empirical observations and we have games. The empirical data suggests that all these phenomena follow a power curve, and all with roughly the same shape. For example, looking at earthquakes, as the strength of the earthquake doubles, the frequency of occurrence drops by one fourth. This simple rule seems to apply to many examples.
So what does this have to do with creativity, strategy, leadership and innovation in organization? Well, I'm not sure yet. My intuition tells me that this is very important to those concepts. It may help us understand the frequency of occurrence of breakthrough ideas and innovation. It may help explain why some innovations cause such change and others do not. It may help produce better strategies to deal with chaotic and unstable markets. And, it may provide lessons for leaders in chaotic times.
Earthquakes and landslides in particular, perhaps becuase there allow for certain types of measurement, were used to describe cyclical events. If the pressure builds on a system past a certain point, any small event might trigger the violent re-ordering of the system. Of course, all that read this book are probably thinking about the market. Market gurus heavily recommended this book.
The implication is that we cannot predict when a financial accident will occur, only that there's always another one going to happen. Also, the higher the level of the market, relative to other things, the greater the pressure on it to experience a financial accident that could begin from an otherwise non-significant event.
The state of the markets today seem to support Buchanan's ideas. One sees something in the news about a small country or a single company that appears unable to meet its debt obligations. Then the markets decline perhaps 3% and threaten to make it the big one if other bad news piggybacks on this one.
As a result of reading this book, I'm trolling the sites that collect negative news that might potentially sink markets, because I believe those events are out there. I'm avoiding news on celebrities, which is what some great powers have determined will dominate our major news media. But Buchanan's point is to expect the unexpected anyway. Looking for it might be futile since the big events occur quickly and without warning.
My take home was that instabilities are out there in most natural systems and should be recognized as usual, though these can be managed if understood. Prediction of such systems relies on too many boundary conditions and should never be wrapped up in certainties.