Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen

Overview

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...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In physics the critical state occurs when a system is poised for sudden change. Any stress, even a small one, can have an effect that seems way out of proportion to its cause -- typified by the single grain that causes a sandpile to avalanche. This fascinating book shows how this process works in systems as diverse as earthquakes, forest fires, and wars and revolutions, and why the exact nature of any particular event cannot be predicted in advance.
From the Publisher
“Buchanan succeeds where others fail. . . . [He] is able to communicate this novel way of thinking without compromising scientific integrity.”—New Scientist

“I grabbed this book and turned the pages. Does Buchanan get it right? Does he really understand how this might change the way we look at the world? He does. This is the book I wish I had written.”
—Per Bak, author of How Nature Works

“Ubiquity explains better than any previous book why many fields of the natural world and human life are unpredictable.”
Financial Times (London)

“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 kinds—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 where they have never seen them before.”
—from the Introduction

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609809983
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/5/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 402,565
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Buchanan is a science writer who has worked on the editorial staff of Nature and as a features editor for New Scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Virginia. This is his first book.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Politics is not the art of the possible.
It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

--John Kenneth Galbraith

History is the science of things which are never repeated.
--Paul Valéry

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. The car was not supposed to leave the main street, and yet it did, pulling up into a narrow passageway with no escape. It was an unremarkable mistake, easy enough to make in the crowded, dusty streets. But this mistake, made on this day and by this driver, would disrupt hundreds of millions of lives, and alter the course of world history.

The automobile stopped directly in front of a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip. A member of the Serbian terrorist organization Black Hand, Princip couldn't believe his luck. Striding forward, he reached the carriage. He drew a small pistol from his pocket. Pointed it. Pulled the trigger twice. Within thirty minutes, the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the carriage's passengers, were dead. Within hours, the political fabric of Europe had begun to unravel.

In the days that followed, Austria used the assassination as an excuse to begin planning an invasion of Serbia. Russia guaranteed protection to the Serbs, while Germany, in turn, offered to intercede on Austria's behalf should Russia become involved. Within just thirty days, this chain reaction of international threats and promises had mobilized vast armies and tied Austria, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, and Turkey into a deadly knot. When the First World War ended five years later, ten million lay dead. Europe fell into an uncomfortable quiet that lasted twenty years, and then the Second World War claimed another thirty million. In just three decades, the world had suffered two engulfing cataclysms. Why? Was it all due to a chauffeur's mistake?

On the matter of the causes and origins of the First World War, of course, almost nothing has been left unsaid. If Princip touched things off, to the British historian A.J.P. Taylor the war was really the consequence of railway timetables, which locked nations into a sequence of military preparations and war declarations from which there was no escape. The belligerent states, as he saw it, "were trapped by the ingenuity of their preparations." Other historians point simply to German aggression and national desire for expansion, and suggest that the war was inevitable once Germany had become unified under Bismarck a half century earlier. The number of specific causes proposed is not much smaller than the number of historians who have considered the issue, and even today major new works on the topic appear frequently. It is worth keeping in mind, of course, that all this historical "explanation" has arrived well after the fact.

In considering how well we understand the natural rhythms of human history, and in judging how able we are nowadays to perceive even the rough outlines of the future, it is also worth remembering that the century preceding 1914 had been like a long peaceful afternoon in European history, and that to historians of the time the wars seemed to erupt like terrifying and inexplicable storms in a cloudless sky. "All the spawn of hell," the American historian Clarence Alvord wrote after the First World War, "roamed at will over the world and made of it a shambles. . . . The pretty edifice of . . . history, which had been designed and built by my contemporaries, was rent asunder. . . . The meaning we historians had read into history was false, cruelly false." Alvord and other historians thought they had discerned legitimate patterns in the past, and had convinced themselves that modern human history would unfold gradually along more or less rational lines. Instead, the future seemed to lie in the hands of bewildering, even malicious forces, preparing unimaginable catastrophes in the dark.

The First World War, the war sparked by "the most famous wrong turning in history," is the archetypal example of an unanticipated upheaval in world history, and one might optimistically suppose that such an exceptional case is never likely to be repeated. With the aid of hindsight, many historians now believe they understand the larger forces that caused the world wars of the twentieth century, and that we can once again see ahead with clear vision. But Alvord and his colleagues had similar confidence a century ago. What's more, few of us--professional historians included--seem any wiser when it comes to the present.

In the mid-1980s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had existed for nearly three-quarters of a century, and it stood as a seemingly permanent fixture on the world stage. At that time, there were palpable fears in the United States that the U.S.S.R. was way ahead militarily, and that only with a concerted effort could the United States even stay competitive. In 1987, one would have had to scour the journals of history and political science to find even a tentative suggestion that the U.S.S.R. might collapse within half a century, let alone in the coming decade. Then, to everyone's amazement, the unthinkable became a reality--in just a few years.

In the wake of the U.S.S.R.'s unraveling, some historians leaped to another conclusion. Democracy seemed to be spreading over the globe, binding it up into one peaceful and lasting New World Order--the phrase favored, at least, by politicians in the West, who happily proclaimed the final victory of democracy (and capitalism) over communism. Some writers even speculated that we might be approaching "the end of history," as the world seemed to be settling into some ultimate equilibrium of global democracy, the end result of a centuries-long struggle for the realization of a deep human longing for individual dignity. Just a few years later, in what was then Yugoslavia, war and terrible inhumanity once again visited Europe. A momentary setback? Or the first ominous sign of things to come?

No doubt historians can also explain quite convincingly--though in retrospect, of course--why these events unfolded as they did. And there is nothing wrong with this kind of explanation; it is in the very nature of history that thinking and explanation must always proceed backwards. "Life is understood backwards," as Søren Kierkegaard once expressed the dilemma, "but must be lived forwards." And yet this need to resort always to explanations after the fact also underlines the seeming lack of any simple and understandable patterns in human affairs. In human history, the next dramatic episode, the next great upheaval, seems always to be lurking just around the corner. So despite their aim to find at least some meaningful patterns in history, it is probably true that many historians sympathize with the historian H. A. L. Fisher, who in 1935 concluded:

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another . . . and only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen. . . . The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next.

Having read this far, you may be surprised to learn that this book is about ideas that find their origin not in history but in theoretical physics. It may seem decidedly odd that I have begun by recounting the beginning of the last century's major wars, and by trumpeting the capricious and convulsive character of human history. There is nothing new in the recognition that history follows tortuous paths, and that it has forever made a mockery of attempts to predict its course. My aim, however, is to convince you that we live in a special time, and that new ideas with a very unusual origin are beginning to make it possible to see why history is like it is; to see why it is and even must be punctuated by dramatic, unpredictable upheavals; and to see why all past efforts to perceive cycles, progressions, and understandable patterns of change in history have necessarily been doomed to failure.

A Faulty Peace

One may suspect that human history defies understanding because it depends on the unfathomable actions of human beings. Multiply individual unpredictability a billion times, and it is little wonder that there are no simple laws for history--nothing like Newton's laws, for instance, that might permit the historian to predict the course of the future. This conclusion seems plausible, and yet one should think carefully before leaping to it. If human history is subject to unpredictable upheavals, if its course is routinely and drastically altered by even the least significant of events, this does not make it unique as a process. In our world, these characteristics are ubiquitous, and it is just dawning on a few minds that there are very deep reasons for this.

The city of Kobe is one of the gems of modern Japan. It lies along the southern edge of the largest Japanese island of Honshu, and from there its seaport--the world's sixth largest--handles each year nearly a third of all Japan's import and export trade. Kobe has excellent schools, and its residents bask in what seems to be a haven of environmental stability. The city has good reason to call itself an "urban resort":peaceful sunrises have for centuries given way to bright, warm afternoons, which have in turn slipped into cool, tranquil evenings. If visiting Kobe, you would never guess that just beneath your feet invisible forces were preparing to unleash unimaginable violence. Unless, of course, you happened to be there at 5:45 a.m., January 17, 1995, when the calm suddenly fell to pieces.

At that moment, at a location just off the Japanese mainland, twenty kilometers southwest of Kobe, a few small pieces of rock in the ocean floor suddenly crumbled. In itself, this was unremarkable; minor rearrangements of the Earth's crust happen every day in response to the stresses that build up slowly as continental plates, creeping over the planet's surface, rub against one another. But this time, what started as a minor rearrangement did not end up that way. The crumbling of those first few rocks altered the stresses on others nearby, causing them also to break apart. Farther down the line, still others followed suit, and in just fifteen seconds the earth ripped apart along a line some fifty kilometers long. The resulting earthquake shook the ground with the energy of a hundred nuclear bombs, ruining every major road or rail link near Kobe and, in the city itself, causing more than a hundred thousand buildings to tilt or collapse. It sparked raging fires that took a week to control, and rendered inoperable all but 9 of the 186 berths in Kobe's port. Ultimately, the devastation killed five thousand people, injured thirty thousand, and left three hundred thousand homeless.

For centuries the area around Kobe had been geologically quiet. Then, in just a few seconds, it exploded. Why?

Japan is known for its earthquakes. A quake releasing ten times as much energy leveled the city of Nobi in central Japan in 1891, and others struck in 1927, 1943, and 1948 at other locations. The intervals between these great earthquakes--thirty-five, sixteen, and five years--hardly form a simple, predictable sequence, as is typical of earthquakes everywhere. If the historian H. A. L. Fisher failed to see in history "a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern," then so too have geophysicists failed utterly, despite immense effort, to discern any simple pattern in the Earth's seismic activity.

Modern scientists can chart the motions of distant comets or asteroids with stunning precision, yet something about the workings of the Earth makes predicting earthquakes extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. Like the fabric of international politics, the Earth's crust is subject to sporadic and seemingly inexplicable cataclysms.

The Great Burnout

Not far to the west of Wyoming's vast Bighorn Basin, the wild and unrestrained landscape of Yellowstone National Park climbs into the Rockies. Immense forests of aspen and lodgepole pine clothe the mountains like a soft fabric, hiding black bears and grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, and innumerable species of birds and squirrels, all thriving in the seemingly pristine wilderness. Here and there a great rocky dome bursts out of the pines and towers over the park like a timeless sentinel. This is America's most beautiful natural park, set aside for protection back in 1872, and now the holiday destination of more than a million visitors each year.

But if Yellowstone is a place of almost unfathomable peace, it is also, sporadically, a place of terrific, incendiary violence.

Lightning sparks several hundred fires within the park every year. Most burn less than an acre, or maybe a few acres before dying out, while others carry on to destroy a few hundred or, far more rarely, a few thousand. As of 1988, even the largest fire ever recorded, in 1886, had burned only twenty-five thousand acres. So late in June of 1988, when a lightning bolt from a summer thunderstorm sparked a small fire near Yellowstone's southern boundary, no one was unduly alarmed. The fire was named the Shoshone, and the Forest Service began monitoring its progression. Within a week, storms had ignited a couple of other fires elsewhere in the park, and yet there was still no cause for concern. On July 10, when a brief rain fell, there were a handful of fires still smoldering, but all seemed well in hand and likely to burn out in the coming weeks. It didn't happen that way.

Whether it was the unusually dry conditions or the persistent winds, no one can really say, but by the middle of July the fires had only become bigger. "Up until then, with the fires," a National Park Service spokeswoman later recalled, "it was business as usual." But on July 14, a fire given the name Clover spread to forty-seven hundred acres, and another called the Fan grew to cover twenty-nine hundred acres. Four days later yet another fire, sparked in an area known as Mink Creek, had exploded to cover thirteen thousand acres, and forest managers were beginning to see things that no expert had envisaged. The Shoshone fire suddenly gathered new life, racing to consume more than thirty thousand acres in just a few days, and by August some two hundred thousand acres of the park either had burned or were burning; on all fronts flames were advancing five to ten miles each day under a smothering blanket of smoke ten miles high.

Over the next two months, more than ten thousand firefighters from across the country, using 117 aircraft and more than a hundred fire engines, struggled ineffectually as the blaze swept through the park. Eventually the flames consumed 1.5 million acres and more than $120 million in federal firefighting money, and lost momentum and dwindled only with the coming of the first snow in autumn. Somehow, from one or several insignificant bolts of lightning an unstoppable inferno had emerged that made the previous worst fire in the history of Yellowstone look like a backyard barbecue. What made this one so bad? And why didn't anyone see it coming?

From the Hardcover edition.

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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Mark Buchanan

Barnes & Noble.com Science & Nature Editor Laura Wood spoke with Mark Buchanan on the telephone. Mr. Buchanan was at his home in rural France.

Barnes & Noble.com: On 9/12/2001 I was finishing the last chapters of your book while sitting in my garden in Brooklyn, New York. What struck me was the relevance of the principles you describe.

Mark Buchanan: Everyone should be wary of trying to predict the future, and certainly, no one knows where current events are leading. I have heard it said many times already that "The world will never be the same," as if it were now clear, following the tragedy of 11 September and its immediate aftermath, that humanity is tumbling over the precipice from one era of human history to another. And yet no one really knows how far-reaching the upheaval will be. Three hundred years hence, will events in the autumn of 2001 warrant a major chapter in world history? No one can really say.

Nevertheless, it is legitimate to wonder what we do know about history. How should we expect the future to unfold? Based on the record of the past, we know that human history rarely marches along in some simple progression but tends to lurch suddenly and unpredictably from one period to another as a consequence of great defining events -- the revolution in Russia, for example, or the First and Second World Wars. In each case, long-standing economic, social, and political bonds were torn asunder, and the world was remade. Most recently, it has happened again, though less violently, in the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.

The ideas in my book aim to explain why human history has this particular character. And my basic point is that one can learn about history by looking to physics. Over the past decade or so, physicists have come to suspect that a single scaffolding of logic lies behind tumultuous events of all kinds -- from earthquakes and forest fires to mass extinctions and stock market crashes, even political revolutions and military conflicts. This isn't just wild speculation but rests upon a solid mathematical foundation. The conclusion is that human history does indeed possess a rather extraordinary kind of unpredictability, and that we stand permanently poised on the brink of catastrophe. Unfortunately, the lessons of physics are not necessarily comforting.

B&N.com: What's especially interesting is the notion that cause and effect aren't always proportionate in these complex systems -- rather the effect depends more on the state of the system itself. Do you think that the popular conception of cause and effect has yet to incorporate this idea?

MB: We have a natural inclination to look for great causes behind great events. When the stock market plunges, we seek an explanation why. Similarly, it seems sensible to seek the exceptional conditions that made, say, the First World War take place, conditions that a perceptive observer might have been able to recognize as the precursor to disaster. We think this way for a good reason, for if we can identify meaningful links between causes and effects, we can use this knowledge to our practical benefit. Turning the key starts the car, unless it is there is no gas, a dead battery, a bad starter motor, and so on. Knowing the links between cause and effect, we can seek the root of the problem.

In many complex systems, however, this seeking of great causes is inherently misguided. The sand pile offers an excellent example. The largest and smallest avalanches both start out when one more grain falls on the pile. In a very real sense, the largest and smallest events are not in any way distinguished by their causes, even though one has far more dramatic consequences. Studying the pile beforehand, there are absolutely no clues to be discovered that might telegraph the size of the avalanche to be triggered by the next falling grain. This situation ruptures the link between cause and effect, and one has to live with uncertainty. The only sensible expectation is that one will be continually surprised. This is indeed highly counterintuitive. Nevertheless, the effect may be quite pervasive in our world.

B&N.com: Humans have a proclivity to try to predict the future. Basically, the kinds of sudden catastrophic events you describe cannot be predicted specifically -- what can be predicted is the rough frequency of something happening. Even though I can accept this intellectually, I still find myself speculating about scenarios for the future. Do you?

MB: Certainly. I think about the future and have hopes and fears for various possibilities. It is natural to speculate, and good, because one can be prepared for various scenarios, any one of which might become reality. But it is also wise to remain aware of our limitations, and not to put too much faith in any one scenario.

B&N.com: Accidents of history play a defining role in the formation of a critical state -- contingency isn't an issue in many areas of the physical sciences, though we hear a lot about it in the context of the evolution of life on earth, for example. Can you explain a little about this "historical physics."

MB: To see the roots of the connection between physics and history, imagine sprinkling grains of sand on to a table, one by one. As the pile grows larger and steeper, avalanches will occasionally carry some grains down the sides. This much is clear. But where and when should we expect the avalanches? What is their typical size? And what are the conditions that set up the really big ones? Over the past decade or so, physicists have tried to answer these questions.

Physicists like this problem because it is a simple example of a process in which the forces cannot find their immediate release. Sprinkle droplets of water over into a placid lake, and each drop will quickly disappear as the ripples fade away. Here the forces find their release, and the result is monotonous sameness. In contrast, stress accumulates slowly in the pile of grains, only to be released in avalanches that follow some inscrutable rhythm. When a grain falls in one place rather than another, this event isn't washed away but alters the entire course of the future. As a result, the pile has a history worth talking about. In other words, it distills in a simple setting the core irreversible essence of a historical process. In the sand pile, history matters.

This is an example of what I mean by "historical physics." Physicists don't normally refer to it this way, but call it the study of "non-equilibrium" systems. Nevertheless, it is history, and the contingency of the future on every tiny accident of the past distinguishes this field. The point is that in these simple historical processes, we might well expect to discover some of the basic features of all historical processes -- and therefore take away some clues about human history, biological evolution, and other more complicated areas in which history also matters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2003

    Why do catastrophes happen? Read and be surprised.

    Who hasn't wondered why catastrophes happen? Economists and investors try to understand why markets crash, seismologists struggle to understand and predict great earthquakes, and historians speculate why empires crumble and cataclysms such as the First and Second World Wars occur. Physicist and science writer Mark Buchanan brings the science of what he calls 'historical physics'--the study of systems that are far from equilibrium and, poised 'on the knife edge of instability' to bear on these vital questions. He describes a much-studied model of perhaps all 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 in which a grain can either make the pile a bit taller or start an avalanche, small or large. Scientists experimenting with real and computer-modeled sandpiles have observed several important regularities: 1. The time between avalanches is extremely variable, making it impossible to predict when the next avalanche will occur. 2. The size of avalanches is also extremely variable, making it impossible to predict whether the next avalanche will be tiny or huge. 3. A huge avalanche doesn't need a huge 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 energy released. 5. All processes that follow a power law show two key features. Events are 'scale invariant,' meaning that no particular size 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. Not so with events that follow a power law.) Buchanan shows in great detail how many events that greatly impact our lives represent changes in sandpile-like systems, and so are not simply hard to predict, but inherently unpredictable. These include many natural events such as 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. One thing that can be predicted is that huge, life-changing events will occur far more often than our intuition prepares us for. 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 great changes that shake and shape our world and our lives. Robert Adler, author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation (Wiley & Sons, September 2002).

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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