Crashes, Crises, and Calamities

How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs


By Len Fisher

Formats and Prices




$20.99 CAD




ebook $15.99 $20.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 29, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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.


The Perfect Swarm:
The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life
Rock, Paper, Scissors:
Game Theory in Everyday Life
Weighing the Soul:
Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre
How to Dunk a Doughnut:
The Science of Everyday Life

To Wendella, who has survived
yet another book without crashes,
crises, or calamities.

This book is designed to be dipped into. While the chapters are presented in chronological order of discovery, they can be read in virtually any order, depending on the reader's interests. My aim is to provide solid information about how we can detect and use early-warning signs to anticipate personal and global disasters. Almost any chapter will have relevant, interesting and often unexpected information for readers to digest and use.
If you want the latest news on global warming, for example, you might like to start with Chapter 9, which tells the story of how models have been developed to help us predict future events in complex personal and global scenarios. If you want an up-to-date list of early-warning signs relevant to our daily lives, you might even turn straight to Chapter 11, which gives such a list, beginning with the little-known fact that the height of women's hemlines is a remarkably accurate warning sign of changing economic circumstances.
The task of unearthing this information, putting it into familiar contexts, and applying it to problems that affect us all has been endlessly fascinating. I hope that you enjoy sharing my journey of discovery.

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)
On April 1, 2009, the toads in San Ruffino Lake in central Italy left their traditional breeding grounds and headed for the hills. Five days later, a violent earthquake hit the region, demolishing the nearby medieval town of L'Aquila and killing more than three hundred people.
By a singular act of serendipity, the British ecologist Rachel Grant happened to be studying the mating behavior of the toads at the time of the earthquake. She was understandably annoyed when the toads suddenly disappeared from her study site, but thrilled when they returned the day after the earthquake—not just because she could continue her study, but because she was the first scientist to be able to confirm the many anecdotal reports over the centuries of animals acting strangely just before a natural disaster.
Following her scientific account of the phenomenon, there have been suggestions that we could use the behavior of toads or other animals as early-warning signs for earthquakes. Whether this suggestion will withstand scrutiny is not clear, but at least we may be able to discover any physical signals that the animals are responding to and monitor those.
What is clear is that the detection of early-warning signals can make a huge difference to our ability to deal with upcoming crashes, crises, and calamities—not only in the natural world but also in our personal lives and in our social and economic environments. This is especially true for the sorts of events that scientists have labeled as critical transitions.
In these events, things have been going along smoothly, or changing at a comfortable, steady pace, until abruptly, without apparent warning, there is a jump to a very different state. A volcano explodes; a market collapses; a bridge falls down; a relationship blows up; an epidemic takes off; war breaks out. All of these events, in the scientists' terminology, are critical transitions.
In this book I tell the story of mankind's search for warning signs of such events, and how it has culminated with the recent discovery of a set of early-warning signs that are common to critical transitions of all kinds. I show how these exciting discoveries could be of inestimable value in helping us to predict and deal with sudden crashes, crises, and calamities, both in our personal lives and in the world around us.
Mankind has sought warning signs of such events for millennia. Some cultures put their trust in seers and oracles who were believed to be able to "see" the future. Others looked for omens and harbingers of disaster in the form of unusual heavenly events such as eclipses—a belief that strongly resonates with the modern-day belief in the power of economic and social forecasters, who search for unusual social and economic indicators to guide their prophecies.
With the coming of the scientific era, physical laws began to be uncovered that could act as valuable aids to prediction. Galileo was the first off the blocks when he used simple physical principles to calculate how thick the roof of hell would have to be so that it did not collapse in on itself. Later scientists built on Galileo's physical ideas to develop the concept of stress, which engineers use to help predict whether structures like bridges and buildings will be able to support their own weight. This was a considerable advance on the medieval approach of trial and error: a great many cathedrals collapsed during construction or under the influence of the first high wind because the concept of stress was not fully understood.
The physical concept of stress has been "borrowed" by psychologists as an aid to understanding our response to different circumstances. They use it as a measure of the effect that difficult circumstances can have on us, and whether we can cope, or whether we might collapse like the medieval cathedrals.
Stress is not the only conceptual tool that psychologists have borrowed from the physical sciences. An equally important one is feedback, which forms the core of our present understanding about how critical transitions arise.
Feedback comes in two forms—positive and negative. Positive feedback reinforces change; negative feedback damps change down and restores equilibrium. Positive feedback can lead to runaway collapse. Negative feedback maintains the balance.1
Positive feedback works by reinforcing change, with the strength of the reinforcement increasing as the change increases. This means that the rate of change continuously accelerates—an apparently insignificant initial change can grow to become a catastrophically big one. A ladder that starts to tilt and fall while you are at the top, growing panic in a crowd, a run on a bank, the growth of an avalanche from tiny beginnings, the evolution of an arms race, the runaway collapse of a fragile ecosystem, the increasing violence of arguments in a deteriorating relationship—these are all examples of positive feedback.
Negative feedback works by providing a restoring force that becomes stronger when change threatens to become larger—like the governor on an engine, which gradually closes off the fuel supply as the engine speeds up, or the way we steer a car by turning the wheel to correct any deviations from the line that we want the car to take. Our bodies also use negative feedback in many ways to maintain homeostasis. The hotter we get, for example, the more we perspire, and the greater becomes the cooling effect as the perspiration evaporates.
On a larger scale, it has been proposed that the "balance of nature" and the "invisible hand" of free market competition provide long-term stability by introducing negative feedback into ecosystems and economies, respectively. Unfortunately, it's a myth in both cases. Such negative feedback processes can provide temporary stability, but in the long term our ecosystems and our economies, like our bodies, our relationships, and our societies, are all governed by a complex and constantly shifting balance of positive and negative feedback processes.
Critical transitions happen when positive feedback or some other "runaway" process (such as a buildup of stress) takes over from the normal balancing processes of negative feedback. Our problem in predicting personal, social, economic, and natural disasters is learning how to tell when the balance is stable, on the one hand, and when we are getting dangerously close to a point of instability, on the other. When we get to such a point, intolerable stresses may provoke a sudden collapse, and runaway processes such as positive feedback may suddenly take over and cause the system to run out of control and fail catastrophically.
The underlying processes that produce critical transitions have a lot in common, but until recently the task of predicting the imminence of a critical transition has seemed close to impossible. Sometimes it is genuinely impossible, but in the last decade new insights and the development of increasingly powerful computers have allowed scientists to look more deeply into the question. What they have seen offers fresh hope. Out of a dizzying mess of action and reaction, deviation and correction, process and counterprocess, there has come into focus a remarkable set of universal early-warning signs that tell us when situations are about to become critical and when runaway processes are about to take over.
The signs are similar no matter whether we are talking about social disruption, economic disaster, ecosystem collapse, or climate change and other natural catastrophes. Most of the signs are also simple—simple enough for all of us to understand and take heed of.
Such early-warning signs promise to let us do Monday morning quarterbacking on a Saturday morning by using discoveries from physics, mathematics, and the world of nature to forecast and handle sudden shocks, surprises, and catastrophes, whether in our personal lives or in the world around us.
When I first came across these findings and recognized their profound importance, I realized that this was something we should all know about. I couldn't wait to find out more and to share my discovery.
This book is the result. It tells the story of mankind's search for predictors of disaster and investigates how we might use the recent and still-evolving discovery of a new set of generic early-warning signs to take firmer control of our own future and the future of the planet.


This is the third book in a trilogy in which I investigate how we can use results from the so-called hard sciences to understand and alleviate the personal and social problems that we face in today's complex society.2 It is a detective story rather than a sermon—a shared journey of discovery into a new and exciting area of science that is helping us understand more fully the sources of some of our most pressing personal and global problems.
My main aim has been to provide stimulating and thought-provoking ideas from areas that may not be familiar to all readers. I have had to prune and simplify in order to clarify; almost every paragraph could have been expanded into a whole chapter, or even a book. In compensation, there are extensive notes for those who want to pursue particular issues in depth. The notes are an eclectic collection of fascinating anecdotes, references, and additional background information that I came across during my research but couldn't easily work into the main text. They provide an additional dimension and are a detailed resource for those who would like to take up any of the issues I address. Some readers of previous books of mine have even written to say that the set of notes is where they start reading!
Each note is linked to a particular point in the main text, but the notes as a whole are designed to be read independently and also to direct the reader to the most interesting and important original references. I have taken some pains to select the most readable references for the nonspecialist and to add comments when needed. Whether you start with the notes or the main text, I hope that this book stimulates you to think in new and creative ways about your own and the world's future.
Len Fisher
Bradford-on-Avon, United Kingdom,
and Blackheath, Australia


Do Animals Have Crystal Balls?
For animals, the entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.
—Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites (1987)
In 373 BC, the Greek city of Helike, situated on the shore of the Peloponnesus peninsula, was hit by a huge earthquake and then drowned by the ensuing tsunami. Five hundred years later, the ruins could still be seen beneath the clear green waters of the Gulf of Corinth. Roman tourists would sail above them to admire the sunken walls and statuary, and the story of Atlantis may have been based on these ruins.
Then Helike disappeared. The site silted over, nothing could be seen of its buildings and statues, and memory of its whereabouts was lost. The city was not rediscovered until 2001, when it was found buried in an ancient lagoon. It is now a marine archaeological site—one of the most endangered in the world.
Memory of the city's location may have been lost, but the circumstances of its passing were recorded by several historians, among them the Roman author Claudius Aelinius (Aelian). His account is particularly important because it contains the first description of animals "predicting" an earthquake. According to Aelian:
For five days before Helike disappeared, all the mice and martens and snakes and centipedes and beetles and every other creature of that kind in the city left in a body by the road that leads to Keryneia [Corinth]. And the people of Helike seeing this happening were filled with amazement, but were unable to guess the reason. But after these creatures had departed, an earthquake occurred in the night; the city subsided; an immense wave flooded and Helike disappeared.
There have been many other reports of animals behaving oddly before a tsunami. There are apparently reliable anecdotal reports, for example, of animals fleeing for safety before the disastrous Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, including stories told to me personally when I was in the area a fortnight later. But what could produce such behavior? Some people believe that animals have a "sixth sense" that enables them to detect forthcoming danger. If this sensitivity to future events really exists, and if it can be harnessed, then forecasting the onset of disasters would suddenly become a whole lot easier.
One example of this sense is the claimed ability of some dogs to "know" when their owners are coming home. One such claim was "investigated" by an Austrian television company, whose film appeared to contain convincing proof that a dog called Jaytee could tell when its owner was setting off to return home from a distant location and would promptly go to the porch and wait. Parallel filming of the dog and the owner appeared to confirm this claim in dramatic fashion.
When the psychologist Richard Wiseman and his colleagues investigated the claim, they found that there could have been many other explanations. In the Austrian program, for example, the person filming the dog's behavior appears to have known of the planned return time and may have given inadvertent signals to the dog. To eliminate this and other possibilities, Wiseman and his colleagues set up a protocol of having the return time selected randomly by an experimenter who accompanied the owner after they had left the house, and without informing an observer who had remained in the house to watch the dog's behavior. With this protocol in place, there was no evidence at all for the original claim.
There were even more flaws in the "experiments" involving Paul the octopus during the 2010 World Cup of soccer. Housed in a German aquarium, the animal correctly predicted the result of every match involving the German team (usually a win), and also the result of the final, simply by choosing food from one of two boxes labeled with the appropriate national flags.
The octopus's performance provoked public enthusiasm and criticism in equal measure, especially among the German public—enthusiasm when the octopus predicted a German win (Germany was usually by far the favored team) and outrage when it successfully predicted Germany's ultimate loss to Spain, with some fans calling for the octopus to be cooked and eaten—a classic case of shooting the messenger. This response was nothing, though, compared to that of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who accused the West of using the octopus to spread "Western propaganda and superstition."
But how did the octopus do it? Before we can possibly countenance claims of psychic powers, we need to follow Wiseman's example in the case of the "psychic dog"—that is, we need to be quite sure that the powers are real and that all reasonable alternative explanations have been eliminated.
In Paul's case, even the powers are in dispute, because he did not do nearly so well in predicting the results of the earlier European Cup (getting only four results correct out of six). There are also plenty of alternative explanations for his later astonishing success. The boxes were transparent, so he could see the flags, and he may have been more attracted to the German flag. There were no precautions in place to ensure that the keeper wasn't giving clues about his own expectations. None of the results was really unexpected, and Germany and Spain (to whom Germany eventually lost) were the pre-tournament favorites. The piece of octopus food (a mussel) may even have been made larger (not necessarily deliberately) in the box that the keeper favored.
All in all, it was a bit of fun, but as a scientific experiment—forget it. In fact, forget all of the so-called proofs that animals have psychic powers. It is incredibly difficult to design a scientific experiment that eliminates all other reasonable explanations and leaves psychic powers as the only alternative.
That's not to say that some animals may not have other special powers. The toads of San Ruffino Lake, for example, may have been sensitive to the increase in very low-frequency radio emissions from the ionosphere that preceded the earthquake; indeed, some seismologists believe that such emissions could act as early-warning signals for many earthquakes. The same seismologists have pointed out, however, that if we could establish a genuine correlation between animal behavior and some physical change, that would mean that we were already able to measure the physical change and thus would have no need to rely on the animal behavior to make our predictions.


With humans, it's different. We can test the possibility of precognition more thoroughly because our ability to verbalize allows us to make more detailed predictions than if we were limited to purely behavioral clues.
One of the first people to attempt such a test was the fabulously wealthy King Croesus, who ruled the ancient kingdom of Lydia (in what is now northern Turkey) from 560 to 546 BC. Croesus wanted to know just how reliable were the predictions of the many "Oracles" then plying their fortune-telling trade, and he decided to investigate their abilities before paying hard cash for their advice. To perform his test, he sent messengers with instructions to ask each Oracle on a prearranged day "what Croesus, son of Alyattes and king of Lydia, was doing at the moment."
What he was in fact doing was boiling up a tortoise and a lamb together in a bronze cauldron with a bronze lid. Unsurprisingly, none of the Oracles came even close to the right answer, with one exception—the famous Oracle who resided at the Temple of Apollo (the remains of which still exist) in the Greek town of Delphi.
The position of Oracle was usually occupied by a middle-aged countrywoman who sat precariously balanced on a three-legged stool above a crack in the ground while she received questions. She would then sniff the volcanic vapors emerging from the crack, go into a trancelike state, and produce a series of semi-comprehensible ravings that were "translated" into elegant Greek hexameters by the attendant priests of Apollo.
Needless to say, there was plenty of opportunity for chicanery, and chicanery is surely the explanation for the answer she sent back to Croesus:
The smell has come to my sense of a hard-skulled tortoise Boiling and bubbling with lamb's flesh in a bronze pot: The cauldron underneath is of bronze, and of bronze the lid.
Presumably the messenger had somehow discovered in advance what Croesus would be doing and had dropped a hint to the priests of Apollo in return for a bribe. Whatever the explanation, Croesus was taken right in, and he sent his messenger back with a second question—should he make war on the Persian Empire?
This time the messenger was accompanied by a huge pile of treasure, including a statue of a lion made from pure gold and weighing some 750 pounds. Whatever the original bribe was, it had certainly proved to be a shrewd investment, but the message that Croesus received back was considerably less specific than the first one. It simply said that, if Croesus attacked Persia, "a mighty empire would fall." Croesus took this as a signal to go ahead. Unfortunately, the empire in question turned out to be his.
That was one of the problems with the ancient Oracle's predictions. They were generally ambiguous and usually too vague to be genuinely useful. The same applies to the predictions of her modern successors who ply their trade among the credulous. I tested one modern Internet Oracle whose picture on her home page suggests that she is both younger and more attractive than her ancient counterpart. Sadly, though, the poetry was missing from her predictions. When I asked her, "How well will my next book sell?" the answer was, "Not too well. Please keep your hands on the keyboard at all times during the session." Try translating that into Greek hexameters.


Large rewards are still on offer for anyone who can demonstrate genuine psychic powers. The magician James Randi, for example, has a standing offer of $1 million for a successful demonstration under scientifically controlled conditions. The conditions are no more onerous than any scientist would use if he or she hoped to convince other scientists about the validity of an experiment, and competitors for the prize are invited to participate in the experimental design. The reward has been on offer for forty-six years, but so far, says Randi, none of the more than one thousand people who have challenged for the prize has even got to first base.
A surprising number of people nevertheless believe that there might be "something in" the paranormal. According to the Australian sheep-goat scale, designed to test the extent of our belief in the paranormal, some 30 percent of us even believe that we share the Oracle's supposed ability to see at least dimly into the future. Amazingly, the research of the U.S. cognitive scientist Mark Changizi suggests that the 30 percent (who inhabit the "sheep" end of the scale) may have a case. The bad news is that the furthest that they or the rest of us can "see" is about one-tenth of a second.
Changizi's research concerns what happens when light hits the retina. It takes the brain around one-tenth of a second to translate this information into a visual image. According to Changizi, the brain adapts to this delay by generating "pre-images" of what it believes will occur one-tenth of a second into the future. This foresight keeps our view of the world in the present. It gives us enough time, for example, to catch a fly ball instead of getting socked in the face, or to maneuver our way through a crowd without bumping into people.
Of course, this is not true precognition, even over such a short time scale. The brain imagines what is going to happen. It does not know. When it comes to knowing the future, we skeptical goats follow Carl Sagan's dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Precognition is an extraordinary claim, but so far no one has produced the correspondingly extraordinary proof.
There have, however, been claims that initially convinced skeptics. Some of the most convincing experiments were those of the British mathematician Samuel Soal in the early 1940s. A person on one side of an opaque screen was asked to look at a series of cards, while a person on the other side was asked to guess what card the subject was looking at. These experiments did not produce a statistically significant positive result until Soal thought to check out the correlation between the guesses and the card after the one that the first subject had looked at. For several guessers he found a very strong correlation, which seemed to show that the guesser had foreknowledge of what card was coming next!
These data were sufficient to convince the Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad, who wrote an extended review of the experiments for the respected journal Philosophy under the title "The Experimental Establishment of Telepathic Precognition." The experiments were especially convincing because Soal had previously used statistical analysis to analyze over 120,000 trials of card-guessing with 160 participants without ever being able to report a significant finding. He had also debunked telepathy in a review where he opined that it was "a merely American phenomenon." Now, it appeared, it was a British one as well.


  • 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.”

On Sale
Mar 29, 2011
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Len Fisher

About 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.

Learn more about this author