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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen [Paperback]

Mark Buchanan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Nov 2002
Why do catastrophes happen? What sets off earthquakes, for example? What about mass extinctions of species? The outbreak of major wars? Massive traffic jams that seem to appear out of nowhere? Why does the stock market periodically suffer dramatic crashes? Why do some forest fires become superheated infernos that rage totally out of control?

Experts have never been able to explain the causes of any of these disasters. Now scientists have discovered that these seemingly unrelated cataclysms, both natural and human, almost certainly all happen for one fundamental reason. More than that, there is not and never will be any way to predict them.

Critically acclaimed science journalist Mark Buchanan tells the fascinating story of the discovery that there is a natural structure of instability woven into the fabric of our world. From humble beginnings studying the physics of sandpiles, scientists have learned that an astonishing range of things–Earth’s crust, cars on a highway, the market for stocks, and the tightly woven networks of human society–have a natural tendency to organize themselves into what’s called the “critical state,” in which they are poised on what Buchanan describes as the “knife-edge of instability.” The more places scientists have looked for the critical state, the more places they’ve found it, and some believe that the pervasiveness of instability must now be seen as a fundamental feature of our world.

Ubiquity is packed with stories of real-life catastrophes, such as the huge earthquake that in 1995 hit Kobe, Japan, killing 5,000 people; the forest fires that ravaged Yellowstone National Park in 1988; the stock market crash of 1987; the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs; and the outbreak of World War I. Combining literary flair with scientific rigor, Buchanan introduces the researchers who have pieced together the evidence of the critical state, explaining their ingenious work and unexpected insights in beautifully lucid prose.

At the dawn of this new century, Buchanan reveals, we are witnessing the emergence of an extraordinarily powerful new field of science that will help us comprehend the bewildering and unruly rhythms that dominate our lives and may even lead to a true science of the dynamics of human culture and history.


From the Hardcover edition.


Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (5 Nov 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609809989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609809983
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13.2 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 378,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
IT WAS 11 A.M. ON A FINE SUMMER MORNING IN SARAJEVO, JUNE 28, 1914, when the driver of an automobile carrying two passengers made a wrong turn. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking 27 Jun 2014
By Keith M
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very accessible and interesting read. Very well researched and a good technical contrast to Taleb's Black Swan. Highly recommended if this is your subject of interest. My only negative comment would be that the second half of the book was essentially lots of interesting examples of the principle, but didn't really make any new points.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great book! I think! 7 May 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
bought as a gift for my intellectual husband, no idea really if any good, subject not appealing to me, but he was happy and it was delivered quickly.. and long may we read paper books instead of this electric screen nonsense...
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear presentation of a crucial idea 23 Jun 2003
By Robert Adler - Published on Amazon.com
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. Any process that follows a power law shows two key features. The events are "scale invariant," meaning that no particular size of event is favored. And large events--big avalanches, 8.0 earthquakes, "1000-year floods" and many other kinds of catastrophic events occur far more frequently than common sense would suggest.
We tend to assume that events distribute themselves along the familiar normal curve--like height, weight, IQ scores, etc. These distributions do have a favored scale--most people cluster around the average height, weight, or IQ, while the number of people with extremely low or extremely high scores is very small.
Buchanan shows that many events that greatly impact our lives represent changes in sandpile-like systems, and so are not just hard to predict, but inherently unpredictable. The one thing that can be predicted is that huge events will occur far more often than our intuition prepares us for.
Many natural events follow power laws, including earthquakes, forest fires, floods and the mass extinctions that have punctuated the history of life on earth. And many human events also show these regularities, including traffic jams, market crashes, the collapse of nations and empires, and wars.
Buchanan's presentation of these regularities and their implications is well reasoned, well documented and well written. Read it for yourself, and see if the ideas he presents don't help you to understand what seems to be a profound pattern that underlies many of the events that shape and shake our lives.
Robert Adler, author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation (Wiley & Sons, September 2002).
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From The Innovation Road Map Magazine 12 May 2005
By Paul A. Schumann Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
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? 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.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best 28 May 2006
By B. B. Jenitez - Published on Amazon.com
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars hidden systems 20 Aug 2003
By "fenfra" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
One of the ways I judge a book's worth to me is how often I think about it during the day, and in the days after I've finished it, and if it has added a valuable viewpoint reference. This book has scored high on that scale. This is a book that will present a new way of viewing, something to think about, and I think most would enjoy reading it. The first reviewer had an excellent synopsis of the substance of the points of the book.
I am intrigued by systems thinking and explanations, a way to distill the random patterns of whatever a person is dealing with in their daily life, from the rare to the mundane. I was fascinated with the modeled games presented and how they illuminate the heart of the underlying mathematical "engine" that permeates our world. To see these findings correlate with the recent face of physics theories was compelling.
I had recently finished "The hole in the Universe" by K.C. Cole, and thought about the condition of our universe being in a particular "frozen" state of conditions and how it's possible that that state could be "kicked down" to another "rung" on the ladder-not predictable as to when or under what conditions. It seemed to be a reiteration of these principles, seen on an immense scale.
This picture could be disconcerting as to the randomness of chaos potential, but at the same time it presents a view of the dynamism of life and possibilities, how it can't be any other way if we are able to move and have effect and not live in a static world.
How does this affect one's world view? It's the same as if you haven't read the book; navigate through as best you can, and appreciate life.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but no answers really. 23 July 2006
By Aristotle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Its an interesting read. The reason I didnt give it 5 stars is that I have already read one of Marks previous books (Nexus) which has some overlap (not a lot) with this book. In fact it would be beneficial to readers to read the Nexus book before reading this one as what he writes about in that book really helps to understand this book.

I was really hoping for some more answers on how to predict things based on what Mark talks about but that is the essential outcome of the book, you cant predict things!
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