Why the World Is Simpler Than You Think
Buchanan, Mark, New Statesman (1996)
Earthquakes, forest fires, wars and stock markets: do they all follow a universal law?
In 1934, the historian H A L Fisher arrived at a rather bleak conclusion on the nature of human history. "Men wiser and more learned than I," he wrote, "have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another. . . and only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognise in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen."
Fisher was writing during the Great Depression, just 20 years after a chauffeur had touched off the First World War by taking a wrong turn, thereby enabling an assassin in Sarajevo to kill the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. To Fisher and his contemporaries, accidents of all sorts seemed charged with an alarming power to set the world on its head. One day in 1920, a pet monkey bit and infected the King of Greece. The king's subsequent death set off a chain of political events that led to war between Greece and Turkey. "A quarter of a million persons," as Winston Churchill later commented, "died of this monkey's bite."
Today, we may all feel that Fisher's view was needlessly pessimistic, a mere product of the times. And yet, one may still wonder: do we really know anything about the natural dynamics and rhythms of history? Can we do anything more than guess as to whether there is "a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern"?
It may sound ridiculous, but it is my belief that a new perspective on these questions may be emerging from, of all places, theoretical physics. It suggests that Fisher's suspicions were indeed well placed - that the course of human affairs possesses a rather extraordinary kind of unpredictability, and may always escape our efforts to understand it in terms of general causes and effects. What's more, it may be something like a law of nature that history must, by necessity, be punctuated by inexplicable and utterly unforeseeable upheavals.
To see the roots of this unlikely connection between physics and history, imagine sprinkling grains of rice on to a …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Why the World Is Simpler Than You Think. Contributors: Buchanan, Mark - Author. Magazine title: New Statesman (1996). Volume: 129. Issue: 4507 Publication date: October 9, 2000. Page number: 25. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.