A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Predicting the Next Catastrophe
If you don’t want to be reminded that mankind’s tenure on Planet Earth is extremely shaky and courtesy only of a combination of cosmic fluke, sheer bloody-mindedness and lack of a ‘Plan B’ – then this is not the book for you.
Our personable tour guide is Dr Florin Diacu , who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Victoria, British Columbia and in Megadisasters he applies his mathematician’s brain to the subject of the catastrophes than the human race is heir to – earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, wandering asteroids, pandemics, climate change and even – just for for fun – global financial meltdown.
Dedicating one chapter to each subject he first gives us a quick jog-trot through their history and then examines the various and on-going attempts of scientists to predict and – in some cases prevent – them.
It’s a curate’s egg of a book which very nearly comes unstuck in the very first chapter, on tsunamis. I think – to use that famous editors’ phrase – his research was showing. Interesting though the subject of wave modelling doubtless is to many, in a book aimed squarely at ‘the common reader’ it slowed the narrative to a near standstill – and to very little point, as far as I could tell. Or perhaps I just wasn’t concentrating.
After that, however, things pick up considerably, although there’s a certain degree of uneveness in the quality of the individual chapters which I suspect is directly proportional to Dr Diacu’s personal interest in and knowledge of the subject. The standout chapter is unquestionably the one on cosmic impacts – about the very real possibility of the earth colliding with another celestial body like a comet or an asteroid. It came as no surprise at all to discover that his specialty is celestial mathematics – relating to the movement of heavenly bodies.
He’s good, too, on the people who have attempted to predict catastrophes over the years – the vulcanologists and storm-chasers (who all appear to be as mad as a box of frogs) the dogged eccentrics who were ridiculed by the scientific establishment, only to be proved right later and the unsung heroes – like the medical authorities in Ontario who stopped the spread of SARS in its tracks in 2003.
My favourite, though, is the story of John Michell, one of the founding fathers of seismology, who walked away from his professorship at Cambridge, married a nice girl and settled down to a long and peaceful life in a rectory in Yorkshire – in stark contrast to the litany of miserable fates of many of the other pioneers of catastrophe prediction and analysis.
Although it would have benefitted from some gentle editing (Dr Diacu is Romanian, and in places his grammatical construction is a little distracting) Megadisasters is on the whole a good, basic introduction to a fascinating subject, explaining complex ideas in a very straightforward way. Don’t read it if you’re looking for reassurance though – because in spite of the centuries of accumulated knowledge and some truly inspired flashes of insight – the human race is still more or less helpless in the face of catastrophe.
Oh, and by the way … watch the skies in 2036. Apophis is out there …
Oxford University Press. 2009. ISBN: 978-0-19-923778-4. 260pp.