Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ubiquity: from sand piles to history

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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 overriding metaphor is a sand pile which, surprisingly, physicists have spent much time playing in. And even more surprisingly, they have found that there is no "typical" size of an avalanche in a sand pile--sometimes only a few grains of sand, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. The avalanches appear to be completely random.

Yet if this is the case then it is nearly impossible, then, to predict these upheavals. Of course this is akin to chaos theory but he moves beyond early chaos theory to describe power laws which describe the "patterns" of upheavability. These power laws do not allow us to predict one particular event; instead they demonstrate that across many systems both geological and biological there is a correlation between the number of small events (e.g. small earthquakes) and the number of large upheavals (e.g. massive earthquakes).

So while these power laws do not have much practical value at this point, they do, as physics often does, point to an underlying system which is not random yet is also not predictable. Finally he uses these theories to (which will undoubtedly disturb some) history where he argues against the great person or genius theories of history. Of course, as he admits, many historians have already questioned this analysis of history. What Buchanan adds is that nonequalibrium physics is the proper field to describe what will happen--not just in sand piles and earthquakes but in the most complex of human systems.

And why should we care about all this? Two reasons I think. One, because it points to the wonders of the universe--complex non-Newtonian patterns which do not rely on god. It gives us the in-between chaos and structure. Two, because these "patterns" still do not allow us to predict upheavability. And hence catastrophe, geological, historical, and personal, is not worth worrying about; it's no one's fault, no one CAUSE. Instead it is simply the working and pressure of a complex system much vaster and grander than we can currently imagine or keep track of.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Self-destruction: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how I feel about this novel. It's a book about two friends, Vernon, a editor of a newspaper, and Clive, a semi-famous composer. The novel explores their friendship in the aftermath of the death of Molly, a woman who had, at some point, been a lover to each of them.

I was quite engaged with several of the themes--what binds us to others? and the ruminations on death and randomness where Clive, in a moment of despair, calls the questions the integrity of the wilderness by calling it a "gigantic brown gymnasium."

Throughout the novel, I was hoping to like both or at least one of the friends, but by the end I didn't care for either--surely McEwan's point. In fact I didn't like them at all. And to end the novel on that note made me feel let down. In a sense the novel deconstructed itself until in the last few pages the characters were remote, estranged, even silly, the novel itself withering with the last page into nothingness.

Pre-read note:

Needed something to read during LDS stake conference, so picked this up since I just finished Saturday by the same author and because I knew I couldn't follow the other novel I'm reading with the background of LDS doctrine and testimony, Le Carre's "Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy", because the plot is too convoluted.

A descent read so far.

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Friday, November 25, 2011


SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Has sucked me right in--read 100 pages already without really even trying.

And it kept clipping away with a startling climax. A compelling concept to focus on one day, not just any day, but a Saturday, the day when we take a break from routine, when we allow ourselves small luxuries. The novel takes us through various incidences which are discrete and yet, as we move along, interconnected.

Most of all the relationships, built through short incidences and remembrances, stuck with me: a close relationship with his dropout, musician son; a confident and solid relationship with his wife, whom we rarely see in the present-tense; a difficult relationship with his poet father-in-law; and as a sort of center: the relationship with his poet, liberal, strong, and more sympathetic to war protests daughter. All of this is pulled off with the backdrop of the pending Iraqi war.

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