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Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

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Why do certain civilizations, societies, and ecosystems collapse? How does the domino effect relate to the credit crunch? When can mathematics help explain marriage? And how on earth do toads predict earthquakes? The future is uncertain. But science can help foretell what lies ahead.

Drawing on ecology and biology, math and physics, Crashes, Crises, and Calamities offers four fundamental tools that scientists and engineers use to forecast the likelihood of sudden change: ...

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Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

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Overview


Why do certain civilizations, societies, and ecosystems collapse? How does the domino effect relate to the credit crunch? When can mathematics help explain marriage? And how on earth do toads predict earthquakes? The future is uncertain. But science can help foretell what lies ahead.

Drawing on ecology and biology, math and physics, Crashes, Crises, and Calamities offers four fundamental tools that scientists and engineers use to forecast the likelihood of sudden change: stability, catastrophe, complexity, and game theories. In accessible prose, Len Fisher demonstrates how we can foresee and manage events that might otherwise catch us by surprise.

At the cutting edge of science, Fisher helps us find ways to act before a full-fledged catastrophe is upon us. Crashes, Crises, and Calamities is a witty and informative exploration of the chaos, complexity, and patterns of our daily lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Scott M. Cooper, MIT Research Affiliate, co-author of Coolhunting
“With this third book in his trilogy of exploration into how to address some of society’s most complex and vexing problems, Len Fisher challenges us to rethink how science and mathematics is used in what might be called ‘crisis prediction and management.’ This book is getting me to rethink some of my own work.”

Simon A. Levin, Moffett Professor of Biology, Princeton University; author ofFragile Dominion
“Fisher is a master story-teller, making difficult scientific concepts seem simple through elegant exposition. Crashes, Crises, and Calamities addresses the challenge of disaster prediction in socio-economic, ecological, and physical systems by a brilliant and engaging integration of diverse scientific perspectives.”

Ian Stewart, author of Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities
“Len Fisher is a natural storyteller, and his tales about the mathematics of crashes, crises, and calamities keep the pages turning. A great way to find out what the world’s mathematicians are doing to forecast and prevent disasters of all kinds.”

Yaneer Bar-Yam, Professor and President, New England Complex Systems Institute
“Excellent discussion of the most important problem of our time.”

PsycCRITIQUES
Crashes, Crises, and Calamities is a small book that opens its readers’ eyes to the big picture. The language is simple, even homey, and Fisher deftly illustrates complex mathematical concepts with familiar examples…. [T]he value in this work is the nudge it gives us to step back from our narrow interests and consider possible connections with other fields, perhaps even inducing a critical transition in our own thought processes.”
 
CHOICE “The lighthearted approach takes the form of a series of questions and anecdotes frequently forcing one to laugh out loud—seriousness in disguise that should keep the reader involved from beginning to end, or provide a potpourri that can be dipped into at any point. The volume is remarkably well written and could be presented as a superb example of the use of the English language. There are 46 pages of endnotes, themselves a stand-alone treasure. This book warrants universal popularity.”

Kirkus Reviews

Popular-science writer Fisher (The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life, 2009, etc.) examines the search for warning signals preceding disastrous events.

The author enthusiastically probes into the method of detecting disasters, starting with the reading of heavenly events, through oracles and seers, and up to today's computer models. First, he writes, it is worthwhile to get a handle on the nature of change, primarily through the agencies of positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback reinforces change and can amplify it as the reinforcement increases—i.e., an avalanche. Negative feedback dampens change as "a restoring mechanism that works to push a system back toward its original state"—i.e., righting the course of a careening vehicle. The flux of positive and negative is everywhere: action and reaction, deviation and correction, process and counter-process. After an enjoyable discussion of the laws of motion and elasticity, Fisher delves into the idea of prediction through models, "simplified pictures that capture the essence of a situation and let us see through the complexities." Though models are prey to all manner of inadequacy and corruption—groupthink, selective data input, blind ignorance—well-tempered models have advanced the reading of weak signals broadcast before crises are unleashed. These include greater- than-normal fluctuation and variance (seen in everything from coral reefs to the stock market), a critical slowing down and changes in spatial patterns and distribution. With the degree of complexity involved, writes the author, "[s]cience can't make absolute predictions, no matter how much politicians and journalists demand it"—though these notes toward understanding are fascinating and testable.

The future may seem murky, but Fisher deploys both theoretical precision and sane intuition to permit a little light around the edges.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465021024
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Len Fisher, Ph.D., is author of The Perfect Swarm; Rock, Paper, Scissors; Weighing the Soul; and the prize winning How to Dunk a Doughnut. He lives in Wiltshire, England, and Blackheath, Australia.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A User's Guide to This Book xi

Introduction: How Do Toads Predict Earthquakes? xiii

Part 1 A Potted Pre-History of Prognostication

1 Do Animals Have Crystal Balls? 3

2 The Future Eclipsed 15

3 Galileo's Hell 25

Part 2 How Disasters Happen

4 The Stress of It All 35

5 Runaway Disaster 53

6 The Balance of Nature and the Nature of Balance 71

Part 3 Imminent Catastrophes: Reading the Signs

7 The Chaotic Ecology of Dragons 95

8 Teetering on the Brink of Catastrophe 109

9 Models and Supermodels 123

10 Beware of Mathematicians 135

11 Weak Signals as Major Early-Warning Signs 151

Summary: The Future of Forecasting 169

Notes 171

Index 219

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