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Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  555 ratings  ·  56 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
Mar 12, 2011 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
Nehal Singh
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Intriguing concepts that usually exist in the boundaries of our own instincts - why do things happen the way they do? People tend to take extreme viewpoints - either everything happens for a reason or things happen completely randomly. The author takes a measured, scientific approach and does an admirable job of avoiding bias and jumping to conclusions. Interesting concepts and brilliantly written. I feel he could've gone a little deeper into a part of history instead of general statements about ...more
Oct 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great introduction to complexity and dynamic systems. Enjoyed much more, and was more accessible than Chaos or Complexity.
Dennis Littrell
The real ubiquity is complexity itself

Let's begin with a counter-thesis, namely that the "ubiquity" found in simplistic computer models ("games") which are then related to real world systems such as earthquakes, sandpiles, the stock market, political and social history, etc., may be an artificiality and a whole lot less significant than Buchanan supposes.

The fact that the games are, as Buchanan reports, tinkered with so that they yield a "power law" similar to that found in natural phenomena re
Jul 29, 2011 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
Bryan Alkire
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
Dated and not particularly excited. The idea of complexity has become a bit cliched as a hot topic. This book was at the beginning and it’s nearly 20 years old. The book does move along with chapters on various topics of randomness in data. The writing is not exciting or novel…in fact, it’s repetitive repeating the same mantra in every chapter…everything is random, nothing can be predicted except mathematical relationships which don’t help with causal prediction. The analysis seems sound, though ...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
Oct 28, 2015 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
James Morrison
Dec 18, 2012 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. ...more
john prest
Feb 26, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition

The title should be "Things happen because a lot of other things happened in the past". Several examples of ultimately the same effect. Could have written it in 60 pages. Nothing actionable.
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Things I learnt
- hammer and nail symptoms
- understood bits and pieces of critical states
- know when to fold a book
Dan Drake
Jun 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of those books that makes you look at the world in an entirely new way.

Everything from earthquakes to the stock market to the current protests about the killing of George Floyd. Why do you sometimes get a "big" event -- a catastrophic earthquake, fire, worldwide protest movement, and sometimes such things are no big deal? Amazingly, it all can be explained and understood with very simple physical models. And the difference? There is no difference; all of these systems, from the earth's crust
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a phenomenal book for students of history to understand how the concept of universality in physics relates to the field. Universality simply states that under very broad conditions, interacting objects display universal features of their behavior. Furthermore, it appears that systems generally tend to move into a self-organized critical state on their own, which could result in a catastrophic event.

Through a series of examples, Buchanan guides the reader through the history of the concep
Jan 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and, I think, very important book. As part of an unofficial trilogy with Evolution of Everything and Deep Simplicity, prepare for a consciousness-expanding experience.

To brutally over-simplify, the thesis seems to be that in a networked, far-from-equilibrium, non-linear world (such as ours), many interesting and important phenomena from earthquakes to consciousness are described by chaos and a power law. Thus, you can expect but never predict large events (Fukushima, Great Recessio
Justin Mundt
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own-it
This is a great overview of complexity theory from the vantage point of physics.

The idea I can't shake is that wars follow a power distribution and we are likely to have infrequent but inevitable large scale wars. These wars will continue until one is so large that it wipes humanity out. Maybe we really do need to colonize other planets for the survival of our species. It would explain why we haven't seen any type 2 or type 3 civilizations. Perhaps they always wipe themselves out before they can
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book. One of my takeaways is that critical states are a useful alternative way to view and evaluate the world and our place in it. The "sand pile game" is a super helpful model to apply to different aspects of the world. Importantly, it de-emphasizes our natural tendency to try and explain every cause to an event after the fact. ...more
Philip Holman
Dec 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Deep philosophical treatise of events commonly perceived as having superficial causes

I found this gem a very interesting take on major events having similar underlying structures which simplistically are all disasters waiting to happen. Not so sure on the distribution of wealth whereby a top heavy US distribution is not shared to this extreme by other 1st world countries.
Nov 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
The concepts presented in the book are quite intriguing and interesting. The main message of "history matters" is quite powerful. The book starts repeating itself in the last 100 pages, but still is a good book and I recommend :) ...more
Nov 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Really interesting!
Aliasger Talib
Dec 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Enjoyable book, the concepts did get repeated in every chapter
Feb 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
really interesting theory. well thought out.
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
Sadly, it became repetitive and boring to me. In the end, I did not find the argument that human history behaves like forest fires or earthquakes very convincing.
Philip Chaston
Jun 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Slightly old now but the revelation that such structures could affect human society was neither illuminating nor revelatory. As a research programme, there's been no lift-off since. ...more
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting blend of science and history. Thought provoking.
Chandrasen Rajashekar
Popular science book that summarizes the research in complex systems. Page 267 second paragraph in the book The Black Swan
Jul 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
Dated and repetitive.
Holly Dolezalek
Sep 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a fascinating and actually readable explanation of the power law and the simplicity that underlies certain complexity. Couldn't recommend this more highly. ...more
Dan Landgraf
Jan 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read

Very engaging and interesting read. Not overly dense, but the author does not shy away from complex physics topics. Great book for all interest levels
Ron Christiansen
Nov 19, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, physics, nf
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
Collin Clark
Jul 07, 2013 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
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A physicist and author based in Europe writing mostly about science - physics, mathematics, social science and biology.

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