Calculating Catastrophe

Let me start by a warning. Just as his earlier The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes (World Scientific, 1999) which was not a book about `mathematics; this one is not about `calculating' either. This one is a timely update of the predecessor, broadening it and including data of the last decade. The reader will not find the precise models, or computational methods to rigorously simulate or predict catastrophes. There are however a lot of data and many underlying principles are explained.

The first two chapters form a phenomenal collection of data about all kinds of hazards both natural (extra terrestrial, meteorological, geomorphic, or hydrological) or man-made (political violence, infectious diseases, industrial accidents, or financial crises) that have happened or could happen in the future. Notable (but essential in chaotic systems) are the almost philosophical reflections about whether some event is a cause or a consequence of another one. The problem being posed, the subsequent chapters will point to some possible answers.

Chapter 3 discusses the different scales and units in which the strength of all these phenomena are measured. Richter's scale for earthquakes is well known, but how to measure e.g. a volcanic eruption, and how far in time and space will cataclysmic effects propagate? That brings us to uncertainty and evidence. Historical and philosophical issues of probability theory and related notions are contemplated in chapter 4. This in turn forms the basis to explain some statistics and stochastic processes (chap. 5). Although precise prediction of the start of a war or a financial crash is very difficult, it is possible to recognize the conditions for instability and indicators for an imminent outbreak (chap. 6). Threats of terrorist attacks follow different mechanisms (chap. 7). The next chapter on forecasting is somewhat more precise on earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and floods. Once a disaster is predicted, one should decide what precautions to take, what scenarios to follow and when and how to inform the public (chap. 8-9). After the event is over, insurance companies have to deal with the consequences. What should they cover? How to calculate the risk? What and how to reinsure? (chap. 10-12). The final chapter deals with long-term planning (global warming, global war).

As it is stated in the conclusion: the majority of catastrophes will not be controlled by force or science. The only thing one can do is to try and understand the principles. That is exactly what the author has achieved for a very broad audience. Mathematical knowledge from secondary school suffices. After the reader-mathematician has accepted that this is not a book about the mathematics, but a book for a broad audience about facts and principles, he will definitely enjoy the reading. The erudition and literacy of the author are amazing and an intellectual pleasure to read. Besides the names of scientists, you can find a lot of names of artists and citations from their work: from Henry Longfellow and Graham Green to Fyodor Dostoevsky and from Paul Cézanne to Franz Kafka, Samuel Becket and Hokusai. Even phenomena such as Harry Potter and Star Wars are part of the game. Read and enjoy all of that!

A. Bultheel
KU Leuven
Book details

This is an update of the author's previous book The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes (1999). It is an abundant source of data of natural and man-made hazards that can occur or have occurred. Rather than giving detailed mathematics it explains the underlying principles to a broad audience.

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US$29 / £19 (paperback)