First came James Gleick's Chaos
, then Roger Lewin's Complexity
, and now we have Mark Buchanan's fascinating new book Ubiquity
. One of the most interesting discoveries made by complexity theorists is that some systems seem to exhibit rather curious but mathematically similar behaviours when poised in what has come to be known as the "critical state". A pile of sand in the moments before an avalanche occurs somewhere on its surface seems to be in such a state and the magnitudes of avalanches measured over a period of time can be described using a mathematical equation called a power function. A power function description in this particular context implies that the timing and magnitude of avalanches on the surface of the sand pile will be utterly unpredictable.
This key insight into the behaviour of certain types of system forms the basis for the rest of the book. What if, for instance, the Earth's crust is in something approximating a critical state and earthquakes timings and magnitudes similar in distribution to avalanches on a sand pile? This would imply that earthquake prediction is virtually impossible, an important conclusion given that huge amounts of money continue to be spent in numerous countries around the world for this very purpose.
And what if extinction in the fossil record, stock market fluctuations or tumultuous events in human history are also explicable in terms of critical state theory? If so, then we may be on the verge of "a new science of history". Are critical state theorists any nearer now to anything approaching a unification of knowledge? The jury is still out, but don't wait for a verdict that may be a long time coming--read the provocative Ubiquity and judge for yourself. --Chris Lavers
From the Publisher
Scientists have recently discovered a new law of nature. Its footprints are virtually everywhere in the microscopic behaviour of magnets, the spread of forest fires, the extinction of species, the pattern of earthquakes, the rise and fall of financial markets, the flow of traffic, the growth of cities, the outbreak of wars and even trends in fashion, music and art. Wherever we look, the world appears to be modelled on a simple template: like a steep pile of sand, it is poised on the brink of upheaval, with avalanches in events, ideas or whatever following a single universal pattern of change.
This remarkable finding heralds the advent of ubiquity, a science whose secret lies in the stuff of the everyday world. Combining literary flair with scientific rigour, Mark Buchanan tells the story of the maverick researchers who are exploring the law, their ingenious work and unexpected insights. He shows how this new universal principle will transform our understanding of the science of prediction and make it easier for us to manage and control the future. And in revealing how ubiquity is unifying science, he proposes that it may contain the beginnings of a science of science, and perhaps a dynamics of human culture and history. Indeed, without ubiquity, says the US physicist James Crutchfield, the very enterprise of science would be doomed from the start.
At the dawn of a new century we are witnessing the emergence of the biggest new idea in scientific research since chaos and complexity an idea of tremendous power, beauty and scope, the implications of which go way beyond science. This book, the first to document the discovery and its impact in full detail, will unify the way we think about the world and our place in it.