Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think
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Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think

3.78 of 5 stars 3.78  ·  rating details  ·  191 ratings  ·  28 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...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published October 23rd 2001 by Crown (first published 2000)
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Andrew Skretvedt
Writing having read this a while ago...so 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...more
Insightful, jaw-dropping, significantly changed my paradigm in terms of how-the-world-works.
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...more
Ron Christiansen
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...more
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
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
Jul 15, 2008 Kelly rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who are interested in catastrophes and like a good dose of hard science
This is an interesting exploration of the reasons that many types of catastrophes are genuinely unpredictable. The explanation has to do with chaos theory and more. It reminds me in some ways of The Tipping Point, primarily because one of the key examples in the book is of a sandpile that is stable until one particular grain of sand causes an avalanche (although this book is more scientifically robust). It's a pretty interesting read, but at times I found it a bit challenging, even though Buchan...more
Jul 27, 2008 dp. marked it as to-read
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...more
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
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 3 of 5 stars
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.
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.
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'
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A thought-provoking must-read for anyone who is interested in risk management (of any kind) or the intersection of math, science & history.
An excellent, readable introduction to catastrophe theory.

This was one of the best models of science journalism I've ever read.
Sergei Nemirovsky
Excellent book - an intellectual feast, like a chocolate cake for your brain.
An excellent book for any one wondering why things happen!
Interesting but somewhat hard to get through.
I feel in love with this book and read it in one sitting. A simple and elegant description of critical state theory and the complexities of natural phenomena
Alexander Naessens
Alexander Naessens marked it as to-read
Aug 23, 2014
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Mark Buchanan lives on Vancouver Island, Canada, with his wife, Cheryl, and their three children, Adam, Sarah, and Nicola. He is a pastor and the author.
More about Mark Buchanan...
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