Deep Simplicity – Gribbin

Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity by John Gribbin

Charlie Munger.s fabulous coffee table volume Poor Charlie’s Almanack tipped me off to Gribbin.s latest work. There.s a list of books he recommends, and Deep Simplicity made his cut. Who.s Munger? For the assiduous readers who don.t know (and for the ones who do know, let me refresh your memory), he.s Warren Buffett.s long time partner and co-CEO of mighty Berkshire Hathaway. I.ve been reading about Buffett here and when Munger has something to recommend, I listen.

I was glad to see the recommendation and was pleasantly surprised by the publication date of 2005. Having grown up reading Gribbin.s titles such as The Big Bang, Schrodinger’s Cat, and so on, I wasn.t sure if he was still active. The topic also excited me. As the subtitle indicates, it.s on order and chaos. Davies’ book The Cosmic Blueprint that I had recently finished covers similar ground. Here is the link to my blog review. Why the fascination with chaos and order, you ask? Well, literature and drama are perpetually in that turbulent state between chaos and order. Sometimes order breaks down into chaos but most of the time order results from chaos. And even amidst the chaos of creative words, there may be the simplicity of a deeper underlying order. To me, science is on the cutting edge and its theories provide useful conceptual models through which literature can be understood. Think of science as providing different lenses through which words can be read.

In addition to science, lately I.ve been fascinated with book design, since, well, I am in the midst of putting one together. Let.s see how Deep Simplicity is put together.

Cover

On the cover of Deep Simplicity is a photo of tree rings on the top half and taxicabs on the lower half:

Deep Simplicity Cover Art

Deep Simplicity Cover Art

As we will soon see, chaos theory explains why traffic jams happen. Traffic jams–like earthquakes, the stock market, mass extinctions, avalanches, and a gazillion other phenomenon–obey a power law. When a phenomenon obeys a power law, it means there is a relationship between the frequency at which it happens and its magnitude. Stock market collapses obey a power law. That is to say, if you plot all the little downdrafts (sell in May and go away) and big collapses (Black Monday 1987, Tech Bubble 1999, Great Recession of 2008, and so on) with x-axis being the magnitude and the y-axis showing the frequency, everything would line up along a nice line. What kind of graph would you use?–a log-log graph where the scale of both x and y axes are represented logarithmically, that is to say instead of units of 1, 2, 3, 4… you have ten to the power of 0 (=1), ten to the power of 1 (=10), ten to the power of 2 (=100), ten to the power of three (=1000), and so on (hence ‘power’ law as ten raised to the power of x). Now, if this doesn.t surprise assiduous readers, I don.t know what can. That stock market collapses obey a power law means that they are built into the system. You can.t legislate them away and even if you do, another trigger will pop up somewhere else. That stock market collapses obey a power law means that you can throw out all of classical economics. If that doesn.t get your attention, I don.t know what will. If you don.t believe me, read the book. Also read Mandelbrot–who applied power laws to economics in the 1960s and, more recently, Taleb, who, as a ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ has been trying to spread the gospel. If you put data points on a log-log chart, and a straight line forms, it.s telling you that the process is systemic. But enough of that. Traffic jams obey a power law. So there.s a photo of jammed up taxicabs. I see that. But the tree rings are more mysterious. I don.t quite get that. So let.s say I.m only half satisfied with the cover. The cover should be immediately or at least fairly immediately comprehensible.

Deep Simplicity Back Blurb

Praise for Deep Simplicity:

“Gribbin takes us through the basics [of chaos theory] with his customary talent for accessibility and clarity. [His] arguments are driven not by impersonal equations but by a sense of wonder at the presence in the universe and in nature of simple, self-organizing harmonies underpinning all structures, whether they are stars of flowers.” The Sunday Times (London)

“[Gribbin] breathes life into the core ideas of complexity science, and argues convincingly that the basic laws, even in biology, will ultimately turn out to be simple.” Nature magazine

Since this copy of Deep Simplicity is a library hardback (interlibrary loan from Saltspring Library, surprised that GVPL does not stock!), the back blurb isn.t what I.m used to. To find the ‘traditional’ back blurb, one must turn to the inside flap of the dust jacket:

Why do traffic jams seem to happen for no apparent reason? Can major earthquakes be predicted? Why does the stock market have its ups and downs? How do species evolve? Where do galaxies come from? What is the origin of life on Earth? What if all these questions had a single answer?

Over the past two decades, no field of scientific inquiry has had a more striking impact across a wide array of disciplines–from biology to physics, computing to meteorology–than that known as chaos and complexity, the study of complex systems. Now astrophysicist John Gribbin draws on his expertise to explore, in prose that communicates not only the wonder but the substance of cutting-edge science, the principles behind chaos and complexity. He reveals the remarkable ways these two revolutionary theories have been applied over the last twenty years to explain all sorts of phenomena–from weather patterns to mass extinctions.

Grounding these paradigm-shifting ideas in their historical context, Gribbin also traces their development from Newton to Darwin to Lorenz, Prigogine, and Lovelock, demonstrating how–far from overturning all that has gone before–chaos and complexity are the triumphant extensions of simple scientific laws. Ultimately, Gribbin illustrates how chaos and complexity permeate the universe on every scale, governing the evolution of life and galaxies alike. As profound as it is provocative, Deep Simplicity takes us to the brink of understanding life itself.

The back blurb gets my attention. It.s a bit long though. Maybe for hardbacks that is the norm though. And if I were writing it, I.d mention the power law right away. But maybe that was a conscious decision not to so that the reader wouldn.t be scared away.

Deep Simplicity ‘About the Author’

John Gribbin trained as a astrophysicist at Cambridge University and is currently Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex. His many books include In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, Stardust, Schrodinger’s Kittens and The Search for Reality, Fitzroy (with his wife, Mary Gribbin), and The Scientists.

I really like this ‘about the author’. Quick and to the point. Authoritative but not pretentious.

Deep Simplicity Structure

Here.s the contents:

Introduction: The Simplicity of Complexity xvii

1 Order out of Chaos 3

2 The Return of Chaos 40

3 Chaos out of Order 74

4 From Chaos to Complexity 110

5 Earthquakes, Extinctions, and Emergence 145

6 The Facts of Life 187

7 Life Beyond 214

One can tell a lot from the contents. Do you see anything, assiduous readers? Chapters are about 30 pages: nice & manageable. In the opening chapters, he lays the groundwork with chaos and order duelling for supremacy. After the groundwork has been laid, he moves on to complexity and provides examples in chapter 5 ‘Earthquakes, Extinctions, and Emergence’. This is the axis. Then the book turns to the close: the chapters bringing together chaos, order, and complexity and the their relation to the formation of life on earth.

You should be able to look at the chapters and see the narrative flow, even in a non-fiction work: it all tells a story.

Deep Simplicity and Gravity

All this focus on the structure of the book! Well, I.m going to share with you one interesting story Gribbin recounts. It is so interesting, that when Einstein heard about it for the first time, he stopped right in the middle of the street in awe. Gamow was recounting it to him and they happened to be crossing the street. Cars had to go around them. Here it is: gravity actually has negative energy. Yes. Negative. Here.s the though experiment. For it to work, you have to believe in the conservation of energy. I hope that isn.t a problem! So let.s say there.s the earth. And then there.s a brick floating in space far away. Let.s say the earth and the brick have a net energy of zero. Now the brick gets pulled to earth by earth.s gravity. It comes through the atmosphere and then accelerates and hits the ground. Well, when it falls down, it.s getting energy from somewhere. Because hey, if you lift the brick, it takes energy! Well, where does it get the energy from? It gets it from the gravitational field of earth. This means that in the celestial balance sheet, the gravitational field of the earth incurs a debit equal to the amount of kinetic energy that was transferred to the falling brick. Now what happens when you apply this to the whole universe? This was the part that amazed Einstein… Drum roll… The net energy of the universe is zero, zilch, nada. The energy/mass (energy and mass are one and the same, right?) of the universe is exactly balanced out by the negative energy of gravity. I.ll leave you to ponder this. Yes, there are more ramifications…

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading widely. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all books lead to drama! Wow, who would have guessed!

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