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Self-organized criticality

In physics, self-organized criticality (SOC) is a property of (classes of) dynamical systems which have a critical point as an attractor. Their macroscopic behaviour thus displays the spatial and/or temporal scale-invariance characteristic of the critical point of a phase transition, but without the need to tune control parameters to precise values.

The phenomenon was first identified by Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld ("BTW") in a seminal paper published in 1987 in Physical Review Letters, and is considered to be one of the mechanisms by which complexity arises in nature. Its concepts have been enthusiastically applied across fields as diverse as geophysics, physical cosmology, evolutionary biology and ecology, economics, quantum gravity, sociology, solar physics, plasma physics and others.

SOC is typically observed in slowly-driven non-equilibrium systems with extended degrees of freedom and a high level of nonlinearity. Many individual examples have been identified since BTW's original paper, but to date there is no known set of general characteristics that guarantee a system will display SOC.



Self-organized criticality is one of a number of important discoveries made in statistical physics and related fields over the latter half of the 20th century, discoveries which relate particularly to the study of complexity in nature. For example, the study of cellular automata, from the early discoveries of Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann through to John Conway's Game of Life and the extensive work of Stephen Wolfram, made it clear that complexity could be generated as an emergent feature of extended systems with simple local interactions. Over a similar period of time, Benoît Mandelbrot's large body of work on fractals showed that much complexity in nature could be described by certain ubiquitous mathematical laws, while the extensive study of phase transitions carried out in the 1960s and '70s showed how scale invariant phenomena such as fractals and power laws emerged at the critical point between phases.

Bak, Tang and Wiesenfeld's 1987 paper linked together these factors: a simple cellular automaton was shown to produce several characteristic features observed in natural complexity (fractal geometry, 1/f noise and power laws) in a way that could be linked to critical-point phenomena. Crucially, however, the paper demonstrated that the complexity observed emerged in a robust manner that did not depend on finely-tuned details of the system: variable parameters in the model could be changed widely without affecting the emergence of critical behaviour (hence, self-organized criticality). Thus, the key result of BTW's paper was its discovery of a mechanism by which the emergence of complexity from simple local interactions could be spontaneous — and therefore plausible as a source of natural complexity — rather than something that was only possible in the lab (or lab computer) where it was possible to tune control parameters to precise values. The publication of this research sparked considerable interest from both theoreticians and experimentalists, and important papers on the subject are among the most cited papers in the scientific literature.

Due to BTW's metaphorical visualization of their model as a "sandpile" on which new sand grains were being slowly sprinkled to cause "avalanches", much of the initial experimental work tended to focus on examining real avalanches in granular matter, the most famous and extensive such study probably being the Oslo ricepile experiment. Other experiments include those carried out on magnetic-domain patterns, the Barkhausen effect and vortices in superconductors. Early theoretical work included the development of a variety of alternative SOC-generating dynamics distinct from the BTW model, attempts to prove model properties analytically (including calculating the critical exponents), and examination of the necessary conditions for SOC to emerge. One of the important issues for the latter investigation was whether conservation of energy was required in the local dynamical exchanges of models: the answer in general is no, but with (minor) reservations, as some exchange dynamics (such as those of BTW) do require local conservation at least on average. In the long term, key theoretical issues yet to be resolved include the calculation of the possible universality classes of SOC behaviour and the question of whether it is possible to derive a general rule for determining if an arbitrary algorithm displays SOC.

Alongside these largely lab-based approaches, many other investigations have centred around large-scale natural or social systems that are known (or suspected) to display scale-invariant behaviour. Although these approaches were not always welcomed (at least initially) by specialists in the subjects examined, SOC has nevertheless become established as a strong candidate for explaining a number of natural phenomena, including: earthquakes (which, long before SOC was discovered, were known as a source of scale-invariant behaviour such as the Gutenberg-Richter law describing the statistical distribution of earthquake sizes, and the Omori law describing the frequency of aftershocks); solar flares; fluctuations in economic systems such as financial markets (references to SOC are common in econophysics); landscape formation; forest fires; landslides; epidemics; and biological evolution (where SOC has been invoked, for example, as the dynamical mechanism behind the theory of "punctuated equilibria" put forward by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould). Worryingly, given the implications of a scale-free distribution of event sizes, some researchers have suggested that another phenomenon that should be considered an example of SOC is the occurrence of wars. These "applied" investigations of SOC have included both attempts at modelling (either developing new models or adapting existing ones to the specifics of a given natural system), and extensive data analysis to determine the existence and/or characteristics of natural scaling laws.

The recent excitement generated by scale-free networks has raised some interesting new questions for SOC-related research: a number of different SOC models have been shown to generate such networks as an emergent phenomenon, as opposed to the simpler models proposed by network researchers where the network tends to be assumed to exist independently of any physical space or dynamics.

Examples of self-organized critical dynamics

In chronological order of development:

Scholars looking back into earlier literature have found a number of similar models:

  • In geophysics, the Burridge-Knopoff spring-block model of earthquakes was the inspiration for the Olami-Feder-Christensen model
  • Smalley, Turcotte and Solla (1985) and Katz (1986) used models quite close to BTW's sandpile and linked them to scale-free phenomena of earthquakes
  • Integrate-and-fire neurons, when coupled in large numbers, can be shown to display SOC

See also

  • 1/f noise
  • Complex systems
  • Fractals
  • Power laws
  • Scale invariance
  • Self-organization


  • Bak, P. (1996). How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. New York: Copernicus. ISBN 0-387-94791-4. 
  • Bak, P. and Paczuski, M. (1995). "Complexity, contingency, and criticality". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 92: 6689–6696.
  • Bak, P. and Sneppen, K. (1993). "Punctuated equilibrium and criticality in a simple model of evolution". Physical Review Letters 71: 4083–4086. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.71.4083.
  • Bak, P., Tang, C. and Wiesenfeld, K. (1987). "Self-organized criticality: an explanation of 1 / f noise". Physical Review Letters 59: 381–384. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.59.381.
  • Bak, P., Tang, C. and Wiesenfeld, K. (1988). "Self-organized criticality". Physical Review A 38: 364–374. doi:10.1103/PhysRevA.38.364.
  • Buchanan, M. (2000). Ubiquity. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-7538-1297-5. 
  • Jensen, H. J. (1998). Self-Organized Criticality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48371-9. 
  • Paczuski, M. (2005). "Networks as renormalized models for emergent behavior in physical systems". physics/0502028.
  • Turcotte, D. L. (1997). Fractals and Chaos in Geology and Geophysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56733-5. 
  • Turcotte, D. L. (1999). "Self-organized criticality". Reports on Progress in Physics 62: 1377–1429. doi:10.1088/0034-4885/62/10/201.
  • A. N. Sekar Iyengar (2007). "Realization of {SOC} behavior in a dc glow discharge plasma". Physics Letters A 360: 717–721.
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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Self-organized_criticality". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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