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am 3. November 1997
In spite of its many faults: failure to acknowledge Prigogine's conclusions that foreshadowed most of Bak's; petty sniping at others, incredibly hit and miss editing, and some outright silly passages (such as the idea that people living somewhere where there haven't been earthquakes for a long time would want to buy earthquake insurance), Bak has something important to say, and at times says it well and eloquently.The fact that he has found a substantial number of natural systems that create a spoor of commmon properties, and has nailed some of them is important. But: he says he insisted on the title of his book, not the editors (permit me to doubt this)and then says not one word about how he came to the conclusion that power curves, fractals, 1/f distributions and Zipf's law apply to ALL of nature. Has he any evidence of natural processes that don't? Is anyone working this side of the problem? He has a refreshing view of what good science consists of, but does not display a scientist's attitude of disinterested pursuit of truth. This may be editorial inspiration to avoid qualifications in order to make stronger statements. I hope so, because I genuinely like the way he thinks, and find his ideas stimulating. But his claim to be the "discoverer" of self-organized criticality is close to fatuous.
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am 12. Oktober 2001
Some of the other comments mentioned that the book isn't all too suitable for people experienced in the field and doesn't properly credit the work of others.
Well, I don't know very much about physics, someone recommended the book to me telling me a little about the ideas and I found the book very interesting and inspiring. In fact, I, after reading the first few chapters, started writing my own programs for simulating self-organized criticality, such as own variations of the sandpile.
The book is written in a loose style leading one into the life of a scientist, as well as covering the interesting topic of self-organized criticality.
While reading the book I did, however, get bored every so often, as many of the examples were in my opinion too similar to others and didn't offer anything really new. 4 stars because of that (I do wish there'd be 4.5 :-)
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am 2. Mai 2000
Per Bak came up with a nice theory for complex systems. Potentially it has wide ranging implications, however it remains speculative at the moment. I think SOC will in time come to be a useful tool for describing a broad class of complex systems however I doubt it will ever reach the hyperbole given in this book. Unfortunately Bak's turned this book into a sales pitch for his theory, forgotten any pretense of reasoned arguement and so spoiled what could of been a good popular science book on what is a extremely interesting are.
If you are of a slightly mathematical bent get Jensen's book. There you will get a reasoned account of what SOC has given us and what is has not even if you skip some of the derivations. Balance is something you won't find in Bak's book.
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am 2. Februar 1998
If you believe in Occam's razor, you will probably like the idea of self-organized criticality (SOC). It is simple enough to be understood and appreciated by non-mathematicians, yet profound enough to make us look at phenomenons in nature and society in a different way. Per Bak presented SOC in a highly readable fashion. It is not the difficulty of the subject or the writing that makes the reader stop and ruminate, as is the case with many science writings, but the simple yet intriguing nature of the idea itself.
Is the author overreaching in some of his assertions and conclusions (as some people took exception to his choice of title)? Perhaps. But this book is short and highly enjoyable, and I think it is worth spending a few hours of one's time reading it.
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am 12. Januar 2000
I used this book (along with Stu Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe, Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law", and Cohen & Stewart's "Collapse of Chaos") for a freshman seminar at Duke University on "Emergence of Complexity". My students really enjoyed Bak's book. It gave them a whole new perspective on the nature of physical and biological systems and on the nature of scientific models. Most importantly, their short essays on various parts of the book showed that Bak's enthusiasm for his subject was contagious. Students appreciated Bak's creative use of simple models to introduce new ways of thinking about a wide range of phenomena.
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am 13. August 1997
Bak and his fellow researchers have pioneered research in ``self-organizing criticality'', basically what happens when you have a system of loosely-coupled ``things'', each of which can slip suddenly, and you uniformly increase the stress on them all. They first explored this in the context of dropping grains of sand onto a pile, but then noticed that it seems to describe many things --- the behavior of markets, of earth quakes, even punctuated equilibrium in the evolution of an ecosystem. Neat! But, uh, so what
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am 4. November 1999
Per Bak's ideas (and ideas of others that are occasionally presented without quoting the original sources) are remarkably interesting, but the book itself seems to be a product of an uncontrolled avalanche in author's brain. Too low rigor and signal-to-noise to be interesting scientifically, too poorly written to be read as fiction - sorry, two stars. A 10-page summary could have done much better.
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am 8. März 2014
Excellent book. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the underlying processes of nature and physics. Well explained and illustrated clearly.
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am 22. Juni 1998
Per Bak has made a glitzy try at explaining a number of natural phenomena. The idea of "self-organized criticality" is one that many disciplines grom geology to taxonomy to economics have had as a "dance partner."
Unfortunately, the idea of spontaneous order requires rigorous argument, not just clever analogy. For an elegant statement of the relations among the processes and components of the Universe that interact to give us stability and instability, basic arguments and a history of ideas can be found in Prigogine and Stengers' "Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialog with Nature." In collaboration with Stengers, Prigogine has updated his arguments for the role of the structures and behaviors in Nature in "The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature." Incidentally, the Nobel Laureate work of Ilya Prigogine seems not to have been discussed in Bak's cute little book. Even though this book is clearly written, there are enough omissions and errors to make a reader nervous.
For two instances of many problems. 1-Many examples are drawn from paleontological and evolutionary phenomena. Data on life spans of fossil genera (a Sepkowski compilation of data) are the source for one of histograms and are incorrectly transferred to Bak's book as a "kill curve." Kill curves are an important part of evolutionary/extinction theory. Bak might also have cited Van Valen's mechanism for disappearance by predation: the Red Queen's Hypothesis (roughly put, predators snarf up the most convenient meal, not always the slowest member of a species). This is an interesting variation on natural selection and one which Bak's cleverness could discuss to good effect. 2-Linear log-log plots appear without error bars and might have been done by the old Mark One Eyeball Method. How is a reader to know if the data reflected in the points were sloppy or tight fits? This is a crucial point in pattern matching. A shaky pattern makes a less convincing argument than a rel! iable one. Why aren't major intellectual contributions to the idea of self organization and critical conditions from Van Valen (1973), G. U. Yule (1987), D. Raup (1991) and Prigogine (1984, 1996) given some discussion?
I mention the above examples because argument by analogy is centered on Pattern Matching. Pattern can be defined for mathematical purposes as "a template, motif, design which may be repeated" (see Grünbaum and Shephard, "Tilings and Patterns"). But Bak does not say WHY pattern in mathematics (created by mathematical rules) should match pattern in Nature (created by rules which we are still working out). A quick answer would be that the pattern/analogy is only as good as the elements of the items being compared are comparable. Clearly, mechanisms of creation of the compared patterns are different. Use of analogy is a creative, useful way to probe the unknown by the known, but Bak does not lay even this foundation for the arguments in the book.
Because mathematical pattern (as survival curves, radioactive decay and the like appears in nature does not mean that the pattern match alone is "proof" for general a natural process as explanation for diverse observations. Bak's "avalanche behavior in sandpiles" is only as good as a master pattern if the transfer of data and mathematical information from other sources is impeccable. For an example of careful argument using understandable mathematics to understand processes in nature I recommend David Raup's witty "Extinction: Bad Luck or Bad Genes?."
In closing, I cannot recommend this book in spite of its occasional cleverness and clear writing. In the spirit of the Red Queen's Hypothesis, it is not quite quick enough to avoid the predator/critic.
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am 30. Mai 2000
I couldn't let the previous reviewer's comments stand without comment. I can't believe the reviewer read the same book that I did. Bak's treatment is detailed, clear, and balanced. When he is enthusiastic he let's you know exactly why, leaving you free to make up your own mind. The fact that most of the studies he describes were published in Physical Review Letters might tell you something about their quality. The book provides wonderful examples of the role of models in science, much better than any I've come across in rather extensive search for materials for a course on the Nature of Science I help teach. I'm reading the book for the third time (not because it is difficult to read, but simply because it repays rereading) and I admire it more with each reading. If you want to understand models that display Self Organized Criticality, this book is without question the place to go.
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