“We are repeatedly blindsided by disasters that come out of the blue. If we had better tools for anticipating those events, we could avoid some of them,” said Steve Carpenter, a University of Washington ecologist and co-author of a review Wednesday in Nature.
In 1982, physicist Kenneth Wilson won a Nobel Prize for developing equations to describe transitions that don’t happen in a linear, easily predictable way, but are sudden and massive, such as fluids becoming turbulent and metals becoming magnetized.
Since then, scientists have noticed similar shifts elsewhere. The theory provides the only models that make sense of the Sahara’s sudden flip from fertile grassland to sandy wastes some 5,500 years ago. Exploited fish populations fluctuate wildly. Futures prices on the S&P 500 displayed telltale skewing in the year preceding the 1987 stock market crash.
The proposition is by no means certain, but the possibility of being able to predict these sorts of events is tantalizing.
Picture credit here.