Per Bak is one of the founding fathers of the science of self-organised critical systems. These are systems that are neither too "cold" (frozen into motionlessness), nor too "hot" (swirling in memoryless chaotic motion), but rather poised on the edge; and that, importantly, self-organise into this poised state, with no external tuning or organisation required. One feature that characterises such systems is a power law distribution of the characteristic events (avalanches, quakes, crashes, jams, ...). Although large events are comparatively rare, events can and do happen on all scales, with no different mechanism needed to explain the rare large events than that which explains the smaller, more common ones.
Power laws, characteristic of self-organising critical systems, have an interesting property. Events are not periodic (although they appear to be, because large events happen rarely, and we are keen to force a periodic structure onto them.) Neither is the occurrence of an event statistically independent of the occurrence of earlier events (unlike tossing a coin). And neither is an event "more likely" to occur if it has not happened for a while ("we haven't has an earthquake for ages -- one must be due soon"). Rather counter-intuitively, the opposite holds:
Even when we do recognise the clustering effect, as with buses -- "nothing for ages, then three come along at once!" -- it is taken as a sign of the perversity of the universe behaving in an unnatural way merely to inconvenience us, not as a recognition of a universal law.
Bak explains the theory of self-organised criticality partly by describing the historical process that led him and his coworkers to develop it. Crucial to their understanding was the building of extremely simple models that nevertheless exhibited the interesting properties. Initially they started with a 2D network of connected twisted pendulums. Although that model did exhibit self-organising criticality, it was still too far from an intuitive set-up to give them the needed insight. But then they hit upon what has become the trademark example: the sandpile, with its avalanches self-organising it to the critical slope.
A sandpile is a simple, everyday system that is easy to visualise and understand. [Personally, I feel that scientific understanding requires both the metaphoric picture, and the mathematical manipulation. I well remember my General Relativity courses where I had good pictures and metaphors -- bending light beams and tipped light cones falling into black holes -- but I never managed to set up or solve the relevant equations -- so I felt I never really understood it.]
Bak also has some acid comments to make about "big" science. After all, he and his colleagues opened up a new branch of scientific study by looking at sand. He thinks too much money is spent on expensive equipment that does not necessarily lead to good, insightful science. [Maybe the answer lies at neither extreme, but rather that a self-organised scientific establishment with a power law distribution of experiments "on all scales" is best?]
In fact, one of Bak's coworkers came up with a model that is even simpler than sandpile avalanches, and yet still exhibits self-organised criticality:
This model was simple enough that they could run computer simulations, and discover the events that led to big avalanches. But at the time they happened, those events appeared no different from any other event -- there was no indication of the enormous effect they were to have. And that is because the avalanche is caused not only by that event, but also by the entire history of the system as it self-organises into a critical state.
After discussing sandpiles and other simple models, to build up a picture of just what a self-organised critical system is, and how it behaves (events on all scales), Bak goes on to discuss a variety of phenomena that appear to be self-organised (because they exhibit power law behaviours). These include stock market crashes, traffic jams, solar flares:
evolution in general:
and the extinction of the dinosaurs in particular:
The point is that no external force, or anomalous internal force, is necessary to explain the events. It is just that a self-organised critical system naturally has infrequent large events, be they mass extinctions, enormous avalanches, stock market crashes, massive earthquakes, or whatever. [Although I must admit, having grown up during a time when everyone was puzzled by what caused the inexplicable extinction of the dinosaurs, I now view the plethora of competing explanations with some amusement -- what with meteor impacts, climate change, vegetation change, shrews eating their eggs, local supernovae, solar flares, volcanic eruptions, collapse of Deccan Traps, ... how did they manage to live so long?]
This is a great book. It isn't perfect: the later chapters do rush some of the explanations (in particular, a bunch of rather similar graphs have too brief descriptions of what they portray); some of the personal anecdotes are a little heavy-handed; and the typeface is revolting. Ignoring these minor defects, however, there is a clear explanation of the process of self-organised criticality, with a good range of examples, some excellent intuition priming, and some great stuff about the nature of economics and the ability to control it that I wish (vainly, I know) that politicians could absorb, understand, and act on.