Tuesday 14 August 2012

Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan

Ubiquity is a totally fascinating book, that uncovers the patterns that underlie the frequency of things as seemingly different as earthquakes, financial collapses, wars, new scientific ideas and mass extinctions.

Buchanan writes in an accessible, engaging style, though occasionally enough maths creeps in to get the brain a bit bogged down if maths isn't entirely your thing. But that doesn't matter, because the ideas are so compelling. The book was written in 2001, so some of the detail may be out of date but the concepts are certainly still relevant. One of the particularly relevant issues is forest fire:

Scientists made a computer programme that predicted when forest fires would happen and found that in forests where there are few small fires, the trees grow so dense that the whole forest becomes particularly vulnerable to vast fires that can sweep through an entire forest, destroying everything in its path.

This is reflected in reality, where in the US for many years from 1890 onwards the general attitude was to put out every small fire. This meant that small natural fires that are a natural part of forest ecology weren't allowed to happen and so the forest aged, new trees had less opportunity to grow and dead branches and brush built up, creating fuel for the time when a huge fire might develop. Apparently this has changed, with the US federal Wild Fire Policy accepting that fire is part of forest ecology.

The other theme that particularly leapt out at me was evolution, specifically evolution of rabbits (and any author who uses rabbits to illustrate a discussion will only get extra points from me!)

"In any population of rabbits, for example, some will see better, run faster or think quicker than others. This is variation. These fitter rabbits tend to live longer and produce more offspring than do weaker rabbits. This is selection. And because parents pass copies of their genes down to their offspring, the next generation almost certainly contains a greater proportion of fitter rabbits."

We're then given a graph (which I won't attempt to reproduce here) and a discussion of patterns of evolution, using misfit rabbits, frogs and, for simplicity, digital species. The scientific investigations into how species evolve then showed up patterns that underlie frequencies of extinctions.

The whole book is fascinating for the parallels it draws between such seemingly unconnected topics. But at the back of my mind it makes me wonder about whether in some ways, we're controlled by these underlying patterns? Does it mean there's no use in trying to avert catastrophe, if by doing so (using the wildfire example above as a model) we only store up fuel for a future catastrophe?

Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan, published by Phoenix

Buchanan recently started a new blog, The Physics of Finance.


Choclette said...

Sounds interesting. I've not heard of this book before nor Mark Buchanan, although my aunt once lived in Buchanan Drive in Stirling. I'm away to check out his blog.

RG said...

Our Skagit River saw horrible floods before dams and dikes ...

Mother Nature is a B.... they say, sometimes.

PJ said...

The Park Service was severely criticized when they let Yellow Stone to burn one year but they were right and the park came back better than before.

Having lost a home to a hurricane I can tell you that they're largely considered catastrophes when you live in places where the ecology has been replaced with infrastructure and buildings. Here in Florida, if we had left the coastal zones alone and built just beyond them leaving indigenous trees and ecosystems to absorb the major blows we would not fear hurricane season as much as we do.

Incidentally, hurricanes originate in the Sahara Desert which used to be to bread basket of Africa but was over farmed and eventually became desert land. It used to be quite verdant.

PJ said...

I meant Yellowstone. Late night ramblings...

Catherine said...

I'd be interested in what he says about earthquakes. Unfortunately they are pretty disastrous in modern cities. If we built more lightly on the land, they might be less of a problem.