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.
Buchanan, an editor and writer for Nature and New Scientist, proposes to apply so-called nonequilibrium physics to cataclysms in human history. This form of physics involves the study of systems in perpetual imbalance, a state that makes it possible for a small shock to trigger a disproportionately huge response. Buchanan thinks human beings are just such systems, and that the earth itself is another, and that their shared history earthquakes, eclipsed economies, extinctions, etc. reflects it. Particularly interesting is his chapter on revolutionary changes in intellectual ideas, in which he discusses a study quantifying "cataclysmic" shifts in thought by tracking citations in scientific papers. Buchanan allows how daunting a task it is to quantify history and acknowledges critics who say such an approach tempts oversimplification and overlooks the role of free will in human affairs. Buchanan notes, "It is at least a step toward greater understanding to recognize that the tumultuous course of humanity need not be the product of some deeply malignant human madness, but of ordinary human nature and simple mathematics," and thus finishes his book with questions rather than raw numbers. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 27, 2002
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