on 8 September 2004
This is a book from an author with a Ph.D. in physics, which is fascinating by history and can cite Albert Camus. The book is both about physics and history, much as Steven Jay Gould's Wonderful Life is about biology and history. You can draw many similarities between the two books, not the least the fact that Gould and Buchanan are both good writers.
Buchanan does a good job in transmitting the flavour of theoretical physics in the making. From his book you can learn a lot about the way physicists looks for new problems and try to solve them: making simple (even crude) models of reality, trying to guess the relevant variables, establishing the right connections to experimental data. The critical state is a very suggestive concept, but if you want to do physics you must be very careful to avoid speculation and stick to mathematical generalisation and the effort to make testable predictions.
The main prediction about self-organised criticality is that it is unpredictable. Physicists can point to some very nice regularity in, say, the distribution of earthquakes or wildfires: but nobody can tell where and where the next big earthquake will strike. Why? Because the earth crust is in a critical state, and in such a system "history matters". Every single event in the crust is "froze" in a sequence of events and you should know all of them to tell if a particular site will be struck by a major earthquake or not. The methods of physics show their own limit and give way to historical narrative.
This is really a beautiful book. If you have read some half-mystical book on cosmology or elementary particles, and believe that physics is about metaphysics, get it and come back to quite interesting Earth.
on 21 May 2001
I'm well into the whole Complexity field - I think its a fascinating area of study that we've only just scraped the surface of. For those of you who found Roger Lewin's Complexity interesting but less than satisfying, or Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe a bit too oriented to biology, this book offers a great introduction to the field. It covers a diverse number of subjects from earthquakes, financial markets, breakthroughs in science, wars and human interaction but without having to be an expert in any of them. While some may struggle with the lack of physics - this is the whole point. Scrape away all the clutter and look at the underlying patterns, and their drivers. Enlightening to say the least.
If you liked this then try any of Stuart Kauffman's books for a more indepth treatment, Duncan Watt's Small Worlds if you like graphy theory.
I agree that it does become a little repeatative and you can sense that the author thinks so too. However, does this not illustrate just how ubiquitous the underlying pattern is?
on 22 August 2007
Yes, ubiquity is in the dictionary and it is something that is ever present and has the ability to be in many places at the same time. Mark Buchanan provides an intriguing explanation of why a whole range of complex things in the world around us behave as they do, and brings something new and almost magical into the world of science.
Some may expect that the world is governed by laws and equations, while social behaviour is mostly unpredictable. We have special laws that tell us how electricity behaves as it does, why like magnets repel each other and why, if you sit under an apple tree, you might get a Granny Smith bombarding the top of your head. There are perfectly rational explanations for all these wonders. Nevertheless there remain many highly complex situations for which we simply have no guiding principles or laws, and this is where Mark Buchanan, formerly an editor at Nature and New Scientist, brings new light with the concept of `ubiquity'.
What if systems of all kinds can reach a state where, for example, just one relatively trivial event can trigger off a devastating earthquake, a tsunami, or any other phenomenal event just waiting to happen? Thousands if not millions of grains of sand can be dropped, a grain at a time, and the resultant pile, or sand castle, remains relatively immobile. Yet just one more grain dropped somewhere can produce devastation: the system has reached a critical state. Buchanan gives many instances of this criticality at work. He cites the day an Archduke's driver took a wrong turning in Sarajevo and a startled assassin took full advantage. That began the sequence that led to the bloody First World War, according to popular history, yet there have been countless other plausible `triggers' reported. The key point is that a critical state had already been reached in a region, and a catastrophe was bound to happen.
Forest fires provide another well-treated example, where it seems that conventional wisdom must be overturned once we understand that it is impossible to avoid them all, therefore fires should not always be extinguished at all cost. Where and when they begin, and how large they will become, are impossible to predict. Letting some burn may well reduce the pressure, perhaps avoiding larger catastrophes.
We now know, however, that there is a `power law' that relates the intensity to the frequency of all such complex phenomena, and they are all around us, in the physical world and in social and even financial market contexts. We are in the realms of chaos, yet there are very valuable insights to be gained by understanding ubiquity.
This book, the Cote d'Azur Men's Book Club decided, is somewhat similar to The Tipping Point but has more breadth, depth and, perhaps, sophistication. It is well researched, and it also manages to be a sort of treatise for historians to squabble about. We all enjoy a touch of the unknown, that exciting tingle down the spine and Mr Buchanan is quite good at the chilling business, all, of course, in the interests of science.
Of the three somewhat different editions, the newest paperback version has the most appropriate subtitle, "Why Catastrophes Happen".
One of our members, a chap with a scientific turn of mind, found fault with one of the illustrated diagrams, insisting that it was wrong, and is corresponding with the author. Was this yet another instance of ubiquity at work, or poor work by a researcher?
Well, it is all a fairly academic discussion point at the moment, may it stay that way but you never know, do you?
on 24 April 2001
I found this book very enlightening. The underlying simplicity of the explaination of the dynamics of extremely complex structures is very powerful, and attractive. It does stimulate thinking about the application to everyday experiences.
If it has one fault, it is that after the 7th example, it becomes too repeatative, the reader knows what the conclusion will be without reading on. I'm afraid I couldn't finish it for that reason. However, I am glad I read as much as I did.
on 24 November 2000
I found "Ubiquity" to be an enjoyable and interesting science book.The ideas introduced are relativley new and have not been covered a great deal in non-academic literature, allowing the author to give a fresh prespective on a facinating scientific persuit.The scope of the book is vast covering such diverse processes from earthquakes to financial markets in an attempt to reveal their ubiquitous nature .One of the many interesting discussions introduced that I found particularly thought provoking was the notion that man lacks free will due to external interacting factors that ultimatly determine his desicions. The author uses examples of aggregate human behaivour in areas such as fashion and music trends and population dispertion. Man's role in determining history is also scrutinized and this forms a central theme in the book. Being just over 200 pages , it does not take long to get through and the fact that the ideas are made simple ensure easy yet stimulating reading. I would particularly suggest reading "Ubiquity" to those that, having read a number of science books covering generally the same topics , would like to be exposed to something new and fresh.
on 1 November 2000
1. Very good book. V.rewarding to read. 2. Nicely written (in the literary sense). 3. Fundamental concept is very interesting. Author has done a great job of weaving a cross disciplinary tapestry. 4. Could be a little more to the point (i.e. goes on a bit). I think this is my own bias - I am so used to just needing to get to the point. 5. Suffers from being a little too qualitative. Would be great to have a "schaum's" approach to the whole subject for people with basic Alevel/under grad maths or something 6. I got quite excited near the end - and it has got me thinking - but I am not sure quite about what (hence point 4)
on 26 January 2007
Very good book, liked the other one too (ubiquity) but I felt it lacked a bit of punch at the end. The ideas and theories put forward with excellent supporting examples seemed to be taking me towards a thunderclap of a conclusion. Whereas it actually took me to a chapter reviewing the previous chapters. I was hoping for a thought provoking cliffhanger that would set me off on a different tangent, trying to understand the new ideas I just just imbibed.
Overall though, a very very good book.
Ubiquity: The science of history, or why the world is simpler than we think, by Mark Buchanan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000, 240 ff.
The dictionary defines ‘ubiquity’ as ‘omnipresence; occurring everywhere at the same time’.
And what this book is about is ‘chance’ and ‘chaos’ and the role these concepts play in our lives. The author is an American-born physicist and writer who has contributed to ‘Nature’ and to ‘New Scientist’ before becoming a freelance author. His several books aim to make complex scientific ideas comprehensible to the general public in an accessible writing style.
The book ranges in subject matter over earthquakes, economic crises, electron field patterns, forest fires, meteorology, geological extinctions and many other complex systems that involve chaos and scientific unpredictability: Buchanan shows us how tipping points or critical points arise in these many different systems. Disappointingly there is nothing on information networks, which have become such an important subject in many fields, and I think that to describe this book as ‘The science of history’ is misleading. If James Gleick had not already published a book called ‘Chaos’, that might have made a more appropriate title. But it’s a fascinating read.
Howard Jones is the author of The World as Spirit.
on 1 February 2001
This was a very interesting read. I found it very clear, persuasive, and intriguing. My only quibbles are that I thought it went on a bit (it became a little repetitive towards the end), and I would have liked to have seen a tiny bit more mathematical meat - although I realise this is risky in a popular science book. These are only minor quibbles, however; it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read that I strongly recommend to anyone interested in how science and the world works.
on 10 June 2001
CERTAIN complicated systems, under certain circumstances, have been discovered to behave in mathematically simple, similar ways. In such critical states, there is no reason to look for specific causes of great events. The smallest force can have gigantic effects and sudden upheavals can strike seemingly out of nowhere. The frequency of such upheavals can be predicted, but not when they will happen or what size they will be. / Mark Buchanan's book reviews the current work on the subject to highlight a deep similarity between the upheavals that affect our lives in both physical and human systems. The book warmly communicates the novel way of thinking without compromising scientific integrity. This is made possible because the author is not only a science writer but also a physicist. / The principle of ubiquity means that one should focus on the simplest mathematical game belonging to a same universal class. Details are not important in deciding the outcome because things in a critical state have no inherent typical scale in either time or space. In a critical state, something known as a 'power law' comes into play to reveal a hidden order and simplicity behind complexity. A power law means that there is no such thing as a normal or typical event, and that there is no qualitative difference between the larger and smaller fluctuations. / If one takes a handful of rice (or sand) and drops the grains one by one on to a table top, a pile of rice is built soon. The pile will not grow taller for ever, though. Eventually the addition of one more grain will cause an avalanche. Such a grain is only special because it happened to fall in the right place at the right time. The addition of a single grain may have no effect, precipitate a small avalanche, or collapse the whole structure. One can predict the likely frequency of the avalanches, but not when they will happen or what size each will be. It may come as no surprise that big avalanches occur less frequently than small ones. What is surprising is that there is a power law: each time the size of an avalanche of rice grains is doubled, it becomes twice as rare. / Power laws have been discovered for events ranging from forest fires and earthquakes to mass extinctions and stock market crashes. This is the power law for forest fires: when the area covered by a fire is doubled, it becomes about 2.48 times as rare. If the size of an earthquake is doubled, these quakes become four times less frequent. The bigger the quake, the rarer it is. The distribution is scale invariant, that is, what triggers small and large quakes is precisely the same. A power law for the distribution of extinction sizes (that fits the fossil record well) happens to be identical to that for earthquakes: every time the size of an extinction (as measured by the number of families of species that become extinct) is doubled, it becomes four times as rare. Also, price fluctuations in the Standard & Poor 500 stock index were found to become about sixteen times less likely each time the size is doubled. / Wars seem to strike with the same statistical pattern as do earthquakes or avalanches in the rice-pile game. What is more, the forest-fire game seems to capture the crucial elements of the way that conflicts spread. A war may begin in a manner similar to the ignition of a forest. Statistics over five centuries have uncovered a power law for wars. Every time the number of deaths is doubled, wars of that size become 2.62 times less common. Such a power law implies that when a war starts out no one knows how big it will become. There seems to be no special conditions to trigger a great conflict. Likewise revolutions are moments that got lucky... / This view of history will make no one feel any safer or happier. After all, wars and revolutions could strike out of nowhere. But it is comforting that the tumultuous course of mankind need not be the outcome of human madness, but of simple mathematics. At the end of the book, one feels excitement about ubiquity. It seems that a profound breakthrough in our understanding of history is coming up. I experienced it. Join me. Buy the book.