Deuce of Clubs Book Club: Books of the Weak

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I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski

Guy Debord: Revolutionary

No Place to Hide

Command of Office

The Christ-Myth Theory And Its Problems

The Christian Delusion

Lincoln's Wrath

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself

The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex


Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Catching the Big Fish

Dig Infinity

The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones

Crazy for God

Basin and Range

Anarchy Evolution

The File

John Ringo

The Supremes

End the Fed

Burning Book

The Hohokam Millenium

God's Middle Finger


In Heaven Everything Is Fine

The Shunning

Wisdom Sits in Places

The Marvelous Country

Hamilton's Curse

The Secret Life of Houdini

The Trouble with Being Born

Schulz and Peanuts

First Into Nagasaki

Joe Miller's Jests

Human Smoke

Dirty Tricks Cops Use

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

All For A Few Perfect Waves


Death in the Desert

American Signs

Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention

Secrets Of A Stingy Scoundrel

The Self-Made Tapestry

A Constitutional History of Secession

The Neurotic's Notebook

Interrogation Machine

Monster Midway

The Harlot by the Side of the Road

Forced Into Glory

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

J. G. Ballard: Quotes

The Compleat Practical Joker

Laugh with Hugh Troy


A Liar's Autobiography


Chasing Rainbows

Letters from Tucson, 1925-1927

The Five Fosters

The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World

How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker

World Famous Cults & Fanatics

That's Not All, Folks!

God's Problem

Will Christ Return By 1988?

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

The Whiskey Rebellion

FDR's Folly

Wilson's War

Bully Boy

[If] I Did It

The Dark Side

Secret Origins of the Bible


The End of Faith

Why I Became An Atheist

"Life's Calendar for 1922"

Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

The Negro Cowboys


Monty Python Speaks

Baseball Between the Numbers

The Psychopath's Bible


J. G. Ballard: Conversations

Days of War, Nights of Love

Gospel Fictions and Who Wrote the Gospels?

The Real Deadwood


The Revolution: A Manifesto


The Secret Man

Stormin' Mormon

From Psyche to Soma

I'll Gather My Geese

The Osama bin Laden I Know

Alias "Paine"

A Man Without Words

The Wild Trees

The World Without Us

Arizona's Changing Rivers

The Phoenix Indian School

Realm of the Long Eyes

John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal

Buckey O'Neill: The Story of a Rough Rider

Thanks For Tuning In

Adventures in the Apache Country

Waylon: An Autobiography

My Life: Sunrise to Sunset

Mimes and Miners: A Historical Study of the Theater in Tombstone

The First 100 Years: A History of Arizona Blacks

Enter Without Knocking

City in the Sun: The Japanese Concentration Camp at Poston, Arizona

House by the Buckeye Road

Vanished Arizona

The Big Con

The Astronomy Cafe and Back to the Astronomy Cafe

A Handbook on Hanging

The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right

A Mind Restored

Mr. Show: What Happened?!

Reclaiming the American Revolution

Stumbling On Happiness

Treasure Maps of the Superstitions

Sunny Slope

Did Genesis Man Conquer Space?

Look Homeward, America

Radicals for Capitalism

Kayaker's Little Book of Wisdom

God Is Not Great

The Echoing Green

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll

K Foundation Burn a Million Quid

The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes and The Tao of Willie

Just Six Numbers and Our Cosmic Habitat

Wild Goose Chronicles

Behind Bars: Surviving Prison

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

The Gang They Couldn't Catch


A History of the End of the World

Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts

Apaches & Longhorns

Deep Survival




Bo: Pitching & Wooing

You Are Worthless

You And Your Hand

Access All Areas

Field Guide to the Apocalypse

The War on Terrorism

Those Idiots From Earth

September 11: An Oral History

Mortal Questions

The Heresy of Self-Love

The White Flag Principle

Medieval Panorama

An Honest President

Those Words

À rebours

Peterson's Incident Report Book

Boo! Culture, Experience, and the Startle Reflex

Victory Denied

Nothing, Arizona

A Porcine History of Philosophy and Religion

O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto


¿Hablas conmigo

Thirty-three Candles

Black Monk Time

Men of Distinction

Alexander the Corrector

Space Viking

Mark These Men

Hallucinogenic Plants

Prohibition: An Adventure in Freedom

JESUS! He's Our President


How to Watch Football on Television

Merrill Markoe's Guide to Love

Lincoln: The Man and The Car

Whatever Men Know About Women

Biographies of Italian War Heroes

ABC of Espionage

Art Colony Perverts


Starting Right with Bees

Planet Earth is a Cult

Baseball Letters


Dopey Doings

Democracy: The God That Failed

Handgrenade Talk

Hi, How Are You?

het zingen van het ijs

The Museum of Jurassic Technology Jubilee Catalogue

The Rector and the Rogue

Colorful Cacti of the American Deserts

Odd Jobs: The World of Deviant Work

The Hungry Man's Outdoor Grill Cookbook

How to Get Invited to the White House

How to Work for a Jerk

Never Work for a Jerk!

The Mentality of Apes

Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me

Dr. Strange: Sorceror Supreme

Nautical Notions for Nibbling

A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity

The Fake Revolt

Coup D'Etat

History of the Town of Felicity

Hood of Death

Dolls' House Bathrooms: Lots of Little Loos

Border Security / Anti-Infiltration Operations

Living on Light

God is for Real, Man

Did the Apostle Paul Visit Britain?

Twin Peaks


Power Phrases

The Truth About Wagner

The Life of the Bee


Science Looks at Smoking

The Chiricahuas

The New Dark Ages Conspiracy

The Big Question

Everybody's Book of Epitaphs

The Death of the Fuhrer


Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come?

The World's Worst Poet

Alyssa Milano: She's the Boss

Home is the Desert

Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher

How to Start Your Own Country

How to Found Your Own Religion

Sex Objects in the Sky

Indian Oratory

Bastard Without Portfolio

The Bedside Book of Bastards

Hopeless -- Yet There Is Hope

Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand

Margie Asks WHY

Death of a Hippie

Wake Up or Blow Up

Feeling and Form


A Mile in His Moccasins

Mojave Desert Ramblings

Passing of the Outhouse

This Way to Happiness

The Happy Life

Young Only Once

The Monkey Gland Affair

Bert Bacharach's Book for Men

The Two Babylons

For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes...

Why Christians Crack Up!

Why Do Christians Break Down?

Hava Nagila!

Beethoven or Bust

How to Abandon Ship

Livin' in Joe's World

The Last Democrat

Salvation Mountain

The Varmint and Crow Hunter's Bible

Love in the Western World

Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend

Little Men of the NFL

No One May Ever Have The Same Knowledge Again

The Secret Museum of Mankind

James Bond's World of Values

We Did Not Plummet Into Space

The Boy Who Didn't Believe IN CHRISTMAS

The Great Escape From Your Dead-End Job

All About Tipping

My Loser Godfrey

A Haircut in Horse Town

Mucusless Diet Healing System

Jefferson Returns

Lincoln Returns

Churchill Returns

Corporation Freak

Null Bock auf DDR

So You're Going on a Mission?

Nudes in My Camera

Why I Hate the Nazis

Flesh, Metal & Glass

The James Beard Cookbook

Mortal Refrains


Amy Grant: A Biography

The X Cars

We Were Five

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder

Hello ... Wrong Number

I'll Kill You Next!

Murder in Vegas

Did MAN Just Happen?

Terror at the Atlanta Olympics

Criswell Predicts

Your Next Ten Years

They Pay Me to Catch Footballs

The Phantom Menace

Just For Fellows

The Lopsided Gal

Astrology and Horse Racing

The Cokesbury Stunt Book

The Origin of Things

Remarks on the History of Things

U.S. Government Sewing Book

Funeral Tributes II

Blinky, the Friendly Hen

The Serbs Choose War

My Mystery Castle


Funeral Customs the World Over

The Right to be Let Alone

Mormonism and the Negro

The Church and the Negro

Preacher with a Billy Club

Fighting Parson of the Old West

Invisibility: Mastering the Art of Vanishing

How to Disappear Completely

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man

Langenscheidts Konversationsbuch

Marlene Dietrich's ABC

The Bible in the Hands of Its Creators

The Self-Made Tapestry

Philip Ball (1999)



If there is one thing I hope to do in this book, it is to shake up these assumptions. I wish to show in particular that pattern and organized complexity of form need not arise from something as complicated as life, but can be created by simple physical laws. This idea of complexity from simplicity has become almost a new scientific paradigm in recent years, and most probably a cliche too. Yet I hope here to tie it down, to show that it is not a recondite solution to all of life's mysteries, nor a result of a newly acquired facility for tricky computer modelling, nor even a particularly new discovery—but a theme that has featured in scientific enquiry for centuries. Some of the complex patterns that I shall consider in this book pose questions that are truly ancient: from where come the stripes of a tiger, the procession of 'mare's tail' clouds, the undulations of sand dunes, the vortex of a whirlpool, the shapes and decorative adornments of sea shells? (2)

The objection that it would take an unreasonably long time to find the best form from the range of alternatives—a favourite argument for evolutionary sceptics—crumbles beneath the extraordinary and demonstrable efficiency of natural selection. We can watch the process take place in a matter of days for generations of bacteria bred in culture. In 1994, Swedish researchers performed computer experiments showing that even a biological device as sophisticated as an eye will evolve from a flat sandwich of photosensitive cells in a matter of around 400,000 generations—perhaps half-a-million years, a blink in geological terms-if one makes conservative assumptions about such factors as the rate of mutation between each generation. Even getting life started in the first place, from a brew of simple organic chemicals on the young Earth, seems to have been astonishingly easy: it may have taken less than 200 million years from the time that the planet first had a solid surface, and would presumably have involved competition and consequent selection amongst generations of replicating molecules and small molecular assemblies. (5-6)

Once you start to ask the 'how?' of mechanism, you are up against the rules of chemistry, physics and mechanics, and the question becomes not just 'is the form successful?' but 'is it physically possible?'
Questions of this sort were what prompted the Scottish zoologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson in 1917 to write a beautiful book whose influence is still felt today. In On Growth and Form, Thompson gave an engineer's answer to the Darwinism that was rushing like a deluge through the biology of his time. Still in its first flush, Darwin's theory was propounded as the answer to every question that someone in Thompson's community might want to ask. The shape of a goat's horn, of a jellyfish's protoplasmic body, of a sea shell—all have the form they do because natural selection has sculpted them that way.
D'Arcy Thompson saw such ideas as an affront to one of science's guiding principles: economy of hypotheses. (6)

What, suggested Thompson, could be more unnecessary than invoking millions of years of selective fine tuning to explain the shape of a horn or a shell when one could propose a very simple growth law, based on proximate physical causes, to account for it? The sabre-like sweep of an ibex horn does not have to be selected from a gallery of bizarre and ornate alternative horn shapes: one can merely assume that the horn grows at a progressively slower rate from one side of the circumference to the other, and hey presto—you have an arc. (7)

It's not unusual to associate pattern with order: creating a recognizable pattern rather than a mess requires an orderly process of putting the pieces in place. It is, then, possibly a little alarming to discover that in nature the most highly symmetrical systems are also the most random. (15)

Surface tension and surface excess energy are two equivalent manifestations of the fact that surfaces are less stable than the interior of a substance. This means that surfaces cost energy. As all physical systems like to reach their most energetically stable state (that is, their equilibrium state), they tend to minimize the area of their surfaces. (18)

Everyone knows that, while it is well-nigh impossible to blow bubbles from pure water, they can be made in abundance from water to which a little soap or detergent has been added. Soaps contain molecules called surfactants, which have a tendency to migrate from the bulk of the liquid to the surface, where their presence greatly reduces the surface tension. This means that surfaces cost less, and a larger surface area can be sustained. Notice that, although our intuition tells us that bubbles have a 'stronger skin' than pure water, they can exist at all only because their surface tension is lower. (19)

Amongst the sprawling modern myth of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is a fleeting reference to a man who tried to make patterned paint. The reference is clearly meant to document a quixotic, absurd ambition, for we all know that paint does not unmix into the separate pigments that went into its making.
But life is always stranger than we think. Take a look at Plate 4. Pynchon's ill-fated entrepreneur would have done well to follow the recipe that produced these blue and yellow stripes; for this is indeed a stable pattern that emerges spontaneously from a mixture of chemical compounds. (50)

To sustain indefinitely the oscillations of the BZ reaction, we also need a source of energy. In practice this supply can take the form of a constant throughflow of reactants and products: the reaction can be conducted in a stirred vessel in which fresh reactants are constantly supplied and end products withdrawn. Such vessels are called continuous stirred-tank reactors (CSTRs). Living organisms can be considered as approximations to CSTRs insofar as they (we) continually (though perhaps not continuously) ingest food (fresh material for metabolism) and excrete waste products. In this way we sustain our out-of-equilibrium (and sometimes oscillatory) biochemistry. (52)

Smolin argues that certain aspects of the star-formation process give it characteristics akin to a diffusion process. The galaxy then becomes an action-diffusion system, with all the pattern-forming potential that entails—making it permissible to view these cosmic pinwheels as gargantuan relatives of the whorls on a frog's egg.
Yes, say hello to life's universal patterns. We'll be seeing more of them. (76)

The patterns on animal tails may be either spots or bands, but bands always appear as the tail tapers towards the end. (86)

This topic shows how a little knowledge can simply make life harder. In the eighteenth century no one was troubled by the question of how babies grow from embryos, because it was assumed that, naturally enough, all creatures start life as miniature but fully formed versions of their adult selves, and just grow larger. People, it was thought, grow from microscopic homunculi in the womb, which possess arms, legs, eyes and fingers perfect in every detail. The problem with this idea, which was rather swept under the carpet, is it it entails an infinite regression: unless you are prepared to accept the formation of pattern from a shape's egg at some stage, you have to assume that the female homunculi contain even smaller homunculi in their tiny ovaries, and so on for all future generations. (99)


Zone of hunchback activation

It turns out that the phyllotaxis in any plant species correspond to pairs in [the Fibonacci] series. A corollary of this is that the number of petals on most flowers corresponds to a Fibonacci number: buttercups have five, marigolds have 13, asters 21. (106)

The situation is mathematically equivalent to the Saffman-Taylor instability in viscous fingering, with the pressure gradient in the latter case playing the same role as the temperature gradient here. If the Mullins-Sekerka instability alone acted on a rapidly advancing solidification front, an initially circular crystal might be expected to develop into a tenuous shape like a DLA cluster. But at the interface between a real solid and its melt there is again a surface tension, and it moderates the effect of the instability, just as it does for viscous fingering, by imposing a minimum size limit on the fingers. (124)

The relationship between metabolic rate and size is a long-standing puzzle. It is common knowledge that the rate of a creature's heartbeat decreases as its body size increases: babies' hearts beat faster than those of adults (they also breathe faster), and the heartbeats of small creatures like birds are more rapid still. For a wide variety of organisms, the heartbeat rate turns out to be proportional to the inverse of the body mass raised to power 1/4. The metabolic rate of individual cells in an organism—the rate at which they consume energy follows the same mathematical law. In other words, big organisms have a slower metabolism. (132)

One of the most common features of a great many crack patterns, however, is that they are fractal: the network of cracks defines a structure whose dimensionality is not a whole number. (146)

Mandelbrot realized in the 1970s that the natural topography of the Earth is typically a self-affine fractal. He notes how this aspect of mountain landscapes can be discerned in Edward Whymper's comments from Scrambles Amongst the Alps in 1860-1869: 'It is worthy of remark that ... fragments of ... rock ... often present the characteristic forms of the cliffs from which they have been broken'. Fractal geometry has since been used to produce stunning simulated images of imaginary mountainous terrain, and to manufacture computer-generated but realistic-seeming landscapes in Hollywood movies. The crucial point here is that these landscapes are not simply random; if you let the computer generate an image in which the ups and downs are merely determined by a random process, the result is a relief pattern that is certainly uneven but that just looks strange. Fractal landscapes are 'noisy' and unpredictable, but are not simply random. (160-1)

So you might, when next walking in the mountains, like to scan the slopes all around for miniature replicas of the giant peaks in the distance: demonstrations of the Earth's scale invariance carved by the elemental forces of nature. (164)

If you want to see one of the key differences between Eastern and Western thought, look at the classical art of the two cultures. The West is deeply concerned with static form, with the angle of hand and arm, the tilt of a head, the naturalistic reproduction of shape. The Eastern tradition works differently: not with light and shade, not with a limitless blend of mimetic colour, but with quick, broad strokes, alive with the energy of the artist. It is like the apotheosis of a sketcher's technique, capturing the instant while exclaiming the transience of forms in motion. It is, in short, an art that embraces change—an embodiment of the essential difference between a Platonic and a Taoist tradition.
Traditional Western artists have seldom faced up squarely to the challenge of change. It's not easy to paint something that is never still. Yet to the traditional Chinese artist, that can be the whole point of the exercise: capture the fundamental forms of motion. This is nowhere more clear than in the ways in which these two traditions have attempted to depict the most challenging of all movements: that of flowing water. The West has relied on the play of light to suggest the froth of wave caps (take a look at George Morland's The Wreckers (1791) or the swirl of mist and sea (take a look at almost any painting by Joseph Turner). Chinese and Japanese artists, meanwhile, have sought to capture the structures of fluid trajectories in a series of lines, which are remarkably close to the streamlines that scientists use to depict fluid flows (as we shall see).
This is not a naturalistic representation, but an artistic response to the same problem that now occupies a great many physical scientists: what are the fundamental forms of turbulent flow? (165)

If there's one thing that has become clear, it is that granular media are seldom predictable. Shaking together different kinds of grains can either ensure good mixing or have the opposite effect of causing them to congregate according to their size. Sound waves can bend through a right angle as they travel through sand, while the stress below a sand pile has a minimum where the pile is highest. The pressure at the bottom of a tall column of sand does not depend on its height, and this is why a sand glass is a good timekeeper—the sand leaks away at a steady rate even though the column gets smaller. If water were like this, the pressure at the sea would be no greater than that a few metres below the surface. (199)

One of the most striking outcomes of investigations into the fundamental nature of grainy materials is the realization that they represent rich ground for the appearance of patterns and form. Some of these patterns show many of the same features as those seen in other, completely different, systems; granular media can provide a convenient model system for studying complex phenomena as diverse as the fluctuations of stock markets and the formation of large-scale structure in the Universe. (199-200)

Thus, shaking, tumbling or even simple pouring of granular media can cause a mixture of different grains to mix, unmix or form striking patterns. At present there is no general theory that allows us to predict which of these will take place for a given system: again, you don't know until you try it. (210)

But here is the curious thing: in their model, Bak and colleagues found that a single grain can induce a landslide of any magnitude. It might set only a few grains tumbling, or it might bring about a catastrophic sloughing of the entire pile. There is no way of telling which it will be. (210)

I don't think that we have by any means exhausted the capacity of granular substances to generate spontaneous patterns, nor have I been able here to survey all of those that are currently known. What is particularly exciting about these systems is that not even the scientists studying them have yet acquired the kind of intuition that allows them to predict what they might see in a given experiment. You have to shake it and see! And I feel there is an attraction too in a kind of physics that returns to the spirit of the nineteenth-century pioneers like Michael Faraday, performing simple bench-top experiments with cheap, homemade equipment and a mind that is prepared to be astonished at the artistry of nature. There is much we can learn from playing in the sand. . . . (222)

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