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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen

3.79  ·  Rating Details ·  292 Ratings  ·  33 Reviews
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
Paperback, 288 pages
Published November 5th 2002 by Broadway Books (first published 2000)
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Andrew Skretvedt
Apr 02, 2011 Andrew Skretvedt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Writing having read this a while don't read this too closely, as I'm really just free-form riffing off vague recollections of the book. (I just want to get it in my list here, for future reference.)

If you enjoy history and economic ideas, as well as basic science, then this book is worth a check-out. If you've enjoyed books like "Freakonomics", then you'll probably find fun nuggets of value in this book as well. The book's main theme is something best to take away and carry with you in
Jun 06, 2012 Nikas rated it it was amazing
Insightful, jaw-dropping, significantly changed my paradigm in terms of how-the-world-works.
Jul 29, 2011 Nilesh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So much better than Black Swan. The topic is similar to a degree although without personal hubris or any obsession to limit the discussion to financial markets or any vendetta against another equally useful Gaussian function as was the case with the other much more popular book.

The implications of otherwise simple power law are well laid out. The book lucidly shows how pervasive power law distributions are in natural life and human interactions. More importantly, the book wonderfully succeeds i
Ron Christiansen
Nov 30, 2011 Ron Christiansen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nf, science, physics
Physics all around--also watching the three part Nova series with youngest son about the fabric of the cosmos.

I'm most intrigued by Buchanan's discussion of instability, that many systems build up pressure of some sort and exist on what he calls the knife of instability. This critical state lends itself to occasional upheavals (an earthquake, massive extinctions, a war) with one small shift in the system. That is big events do not have big causes--how marvelously counterintuitive. His overridin
Sam Bennett
An interesting book along the lines of Blink, Tipping Point. Using several global examples, Buchanan tries to show there is no way to predict future events, earthquakes, market crashes, etc. When we imply we know how major events like these happened, it is always in hindsight. In particular I liked his example using economists predictions. There was NO case where any economist predicted any of the events we have been through. Economics is a particularly good example of his methodology since ther ...more
Collin Clark
Aug 18, 2013 Collin Clark rated it really liked it
Interesting book on historical science and how one seemingly small event can lay the ground work for future events. Think of the hypothetical situation where a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa leads to a hurricane in the US. The book discusses how complex things ranging from earthquakes, to financial markets, to political revolutions lie precariously in a "critical state" where at any moment one small event can lead to a major catastrophe without a way for us to predict it with certainty. Sci ...more
Nov 09, 2015 Anil rated it really liked it
If the author had included a chapter with one example, with exact step by step procedures about how these power laws were calculated, the book would've been perfect. Nevertheless, amazing book. Methods are interesting and can be googled. While I have always used the Petri dish as an analogy for human societies, I was pleased to find out that the spread and scaling of human settlements followed the same patterns as forms of bacterial growth. The message that we should not try to learn lessons fro ...more
Sean Smith
Aug 02, 2016 Sean Smith rated it really liked it
I read this book because several economists whom I respect have used lessons and illustrations in it over recent years to help explain how global economic conditions lead to global economic crisis (like the Great Recession). There are some really profound implications to understanding human revolutions, be it social or intellectual, and why they happen. I had a harder time with the first half of the book as he set up the science behind what he was talking about, but I found from Chapter 10 on tr ...more
Fried Meulders
Feb 15, 2016 Fried Meulders rated it really liked it
Shelves: thinking, life
Talks about some of "The Black Swan" concepts in a more understandable way than NN Taleb (imho):
The unpredictability of certain "upheavals" (= Buchanan's Black Swan) doesn't mean you should be surprised when they happen: from earthquakes, forest fires to the stock market, science and history.
Forget the bell curve for these phenomena, power laws are more appropriate and this has a significant impact on the rarity of these "outliers".

This book does make me want to reread Taleb's work now that I
Larry Wegman
Sep 03, 2015 Larry Wegman rated it liked it
From a theoretical physics standpoint, why exceptional events (from earthquakes to stock market crashes) usually aren't. And why we can't predict when or how often they'll happen, or how far from the norm they'll be.
Dec 29, 2015 Daniel rated it it was amazing
I love this book. It demonstrates that when we think of patterns, that we not confine ourselves to the normal pattern of patterns.
Jul 27, 2008 dp. marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Honestly, maybe I wasn't into this so much. I understood the concept of Critical State after reading the first few chapters and I guess I just wasn't into following all of the examples.

It's gets a three because it's an interesting concept but it also stands as a DNF (Did not finish).

It was a library book; the first I have borrowed from this library and I can't renew books yet. It just wasn't worth me not moving on to something else.

I wouldn't recommend it for vacation, it wasn't bad for sitti
Quinton Baran
Aug 25, 2015 Quinton Baran rated it really liked it
I finally completed reading this book and found it to be very insightful. It is interesting how a wide variety of different occurrences and phenomenon can be described in an abstract manner. I remember that I started the book fairly quickly, but got caught in the middle and plodded along for awhile, before quickly reading the remaining chapters.

This book is dated in parts, as it was written and discusses issues in the early 2000's. This doesn't detract much from the overall message of the book
Mar 14, 2012 Phil rated it liked it
Lively and energetic introduction to complexity theory. Buchanan has the same technical chops as Ormerod but his writing style is much more accessible and his jokes are funnier. Examples of power law distribution highlighted in this include avalanches, earthquakes, and the distribution of academic papers. Although complexity theory is an interest, it was not until this book that I realized that all the "log-log" distributions I showed clients in a previous job were displays of power laws in acti ...more
Jim Morrison
Dec 18, 2012 Jim Morrison rated it really liked it
I liked it very much. It made me skeptical about some of the science I learned when I was young. Mostly, not everything is normally distributed like you might think. Science class, at least in the past, studied things we understand and when the relationship is not linear, or we don't understand the pattern it tends to be ignored. So this is a nice science lesson from a different perspective than you may have considered.
Oct 24, 2010 Andrew rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: math
Was an interesting book although not the most interestingly written one. Deals with a fairly simple concept mostly expressed in the subtitle "the world is simpler than we think." That's not the entirely what the book presents. The world isn't claimed to be simple, but that it shows a regular unpredictability. I thought the many examples used were interesting and learned some new trivia, but didn't blow my mind or anything.
Apr 24, 2010 Dpdwyer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: worth-rereading
Very clearly written. The author is a physicist, and he shows how catastrophic events like forest fires, earthquakes, world wars, mass species die-offs,civilization collapses, economic meltdowns, all result from hidden critical states that have similar mathematical qualities that are only beginning to be studied and understood. This is the best book I've read in the past year.
Nov 27, 2007 Dan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
A must read for anyone afraid of earthquakes :) - j/k, this book is actually a perfect way for a non-scientist to get exposure to the concepts of chaos theory, fractals, etc. His discusses how power laws dictate the size and frequency of a group of events over time, but that each individual occurrence is completely unpredictable.

Good to read in tandem with 'Fooled by Randomness'
Aug 16, 2012 William rated it it was amazing
This is a terrific explaination of "the criticl state" which seems to be a characteristic of man, nature and life. Outstanding explaination of the "power law" and evidence of how it is engrained in all of our environment, events and catastrophes. A serious but understandable read for anyone interested in the fundamentals of our existance.
Byron Wright
Author has two other books with a similar slant. None of his books offers any real insight into why things happen. In fact this particular book is about why individual events such as large earth quakes are unpredictable. It does show that there are predicatable patterns through. I found it interesting from a theory perspective.
I found this very interesting although looking back I'm not sure that the title really captures what the book's about which is physical or social situations which are in a critical state and in which small changes can trigger big events. It's very well argued not difficult to read but seems grounded in science.
Jul 28, 2011 Thk rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some fascinating insights into the order of things, how social forces can take on the form of the same forces that cause earthquakes and stock market fluctuations. A bit repetitious towards the end as the ideas are consolidated. Gladwell finishes much better in his books though. But Buchanan does well
May 25, 2013 Philski rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read on how most natural phenomenon are non-Gaussian (and actually ruled by power laws) .... Very nontechnical and easy to read. Starts with the problem of dropping grains of sand on a pile and shows how that simple model does a good job f explaining natural phenomenon and the 'critical state'
The author suggests that nearly every system composed of vast numbers of interacting parts follows a power law distribution; which alas does not allow us to predict anything (earthquake, stock market crash, etc). Empirical evidence seems not quite as firm as one would like, but still interesting in parts.
Nancy Boyd
Dec 31, 2014 Nancy Boyd rated it liked it
Honestly, not what I was expecting. I thought this was by the pastor Mark Buchanan about why catastrophes happen in our lives. It's by an economist talking about the economy. Nothing wrong with it, and what I could understand seemed interesting, but definitely not my type of book at all.
Dec 31, 2009 Joel rated it it was amazing
I thought this was great, applicable to much of the science I've experienced... it doesn't seem to me to be as much about catastrophes as underlying rules governing nature, particularly power laws.
Mar 21, 2014 Alterstuart rated it really liked it
I found this very interesting. It overlaps with some others I have been reading in recent years: Black Swan, Connected, Small World etc. Easier to read than many of this type.
Jun 11, 2014 Sam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A thought-provoking must-read for anyone who is interested in risk management (of any kind) or the intersection of math, science & history.
Apr 26, 2011 Tim rated it really liked it
An excellent, readable introduction to catastrophe theory.

This was one of the best models of science journalism I've ever read.
Elio Nakouzi
Sep 11, 2015 Elio Nakouzi rated it really liked it
Maybe underrated book. Not too dissimilar from Nassim Taleb's classic "Black Swan"
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  • Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another
  • Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics
  • Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour
  • Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It
  • How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality
  • The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless
  • A Brief History of the Human Race
  • Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung
  • Diversity and Complexity
  • Science: A Four Thousand Year History
  • Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life
  • Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
  • Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
  • The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex
  • Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)
  • Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age
  • Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science
A physicist and author based in Europe writing mostly about science - physics, mathematics, social science and biology.
More about Mark Buchanan...

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