Regular readers will know that one of my main interests is history, and so when looking for books to read for the non fiction challenge I picked several that were about the past, and this one, Ubiquity, which is about the science of history, an idea that I have always found intriguing. Mark Buchanan is using this book to describe what the blurb calls a new law of nature which can be applied to anything.

I found this a difficult read largely because it is perhaps inevitably more about the science than the history, but the ideas the author discusses were sufficiently interesting to make me persevere, though I did find it hard going at times. If I have understood the book correctly (and that might be a big if) there is evidence of “ubiquitous patterns of change” that run through everything on earth (and presumably beyond). Things that look very different may actually be extremely similar in the way that they are organised. Buchanan uses earthquakes, forest fires and mass extinctions among others as examples of how this might all work.

There is a lot of discussion about power laws which I think means that the bigger something is the less likely it is to happen – the example that stuck with me was research into wars and the size of each conflict as a fraction of the world’s population at the time, which demonstrates that wars become 2.62 time less frequent every time the number of deaths doubles.

One of the key ideas behind this book is probably best described by the author himself: if

chaos teaches physicists that the truly simple can nevertheless look complicated, the critical state teaches them that the truly complicated can behave in ways that are remarkably simple

Buchanan does deal with how this all applies to human society by facing up to the objection that I suspect would be made by many people, that is what about our free will. He uses a number of examples to show that although we do indeed have free will, we also have tendencies and often follow the line of least resistance, so that though we deal with each other on the basis of our own opinions and decisions, there almost always emerges a regular pattern of behaviour.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the complexities of this book, and although it wasn’t quite as I expected I found it thought-provoking.

This is my fourth read for the Non Fiction Five challenge.

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