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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen by Mark…
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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen

by Mark Buchanan

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I have been fascinated by critical point phase transition phenomena since I read Stanley's book on Phase Transitions back in college, probably 1974. In graduate school I worked on renormalization groups and critical phenomena. I even spoke at a small conference - I was the warm-up act for Stuart Kaufman! - on universality in critical point phenomena.

One the one hand, all this baggage prejudices me in favor of the topic of this book. On the other hand, it gives me a good background to scout for errors in the presentation. I must say, I found this book delightfully clear and accurate! Of course it doesn't go into every detail, but there is quite a bit of detail here.

I do tend to fall in love with theories like this, self-organized criticality. Sometimes that puts me on a popular bandwagon. Sometimes the area stays esoteric: will tree decomposition (see e.g. Hans Bodlander) ever take off?

This book really is a sort of popular cheerleading. One of the real challenges with this stuff is that there is a lot of noise in the tails of statistical distributions: extreme events are rare, so any measurement is going to have a lot of uncertainty. Looking at these logarithmic plots and fitting a line, which will work well if the tail is fat - it is a bit like reading tea leaves.

This books dates back to 1991 or so. The self-organized criticality bandwagon likely didn't have much momentum at the time. But some methodological caution is definitely needed. Buchanan does admit that fat tails are not as ubiquitous as his title suggests. But the challenge of determining where this model is useful and where it is not, he doesn't really address that.

Anyway it is a great book. The phenomena it discusses is definitely real and important. It describes this simply, clearly and accurately. I don't think the book asks for anything more than high school mathematics. ( )
  kukulaj | Sep 6, 2014 |
Self-organized criticality as the explanation for everything (well, for a wide variety of things).
  fpagan | Dec 28, 2006 |
Once again we're confronting my bete noire, statistical physics, especially of the variety I kept hearing about while at Cornell.

This book talks about Per Bak's sandpile models and many generalizations.
The claim is that many aspects of the world (the stresses in a system before earthquakes, financial stresses before market movements, biological interactions before a mass extinction) order themselves to a critical state poised on the edge of disaster, and that when disaster strikes there is no natural scale to the system to provide an expected magnitude of disaster, rather there is simply a power law of the expected size of the "disaster" (a power law being the one mathematical formula you can provide that is scale-free).

The author did a pretty good job, I think, of providing an overview of the subject, though the last two chapters, where he tried to apply this idea to human history, had an air of desperation about them.
My main complaint will come as no surprise, that there was no mathematics. I'd also like to have heard the views of some naysayer; or are we to conclude that there are no nay-sayers? ( )
  name99 | Nov 25, 2006 |
Why do conspiracy theories do so well? Because we feel that it is only right that major events should have correspondingly major causes. I don't think Buchanan ever mentions conspiracy theorists in this work; but he does show how irrelevant the concept of cause is to explaining so much of what happens in our world. This book is very well written, presents a lot of mathematical ideas in an accessible way and may well turn out to be a truly seminal work.
Quite frankly I am stunned that, at the time of writing this review, only 19 of us Librarythingers have this in our collections. ( )
  Chalky | Sep 30, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0609809989, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:28 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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