From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Author and mathematics professor Diacu (Celestial Encounters: The Origins of Chaos and Stability) presents a civilian-friendly guide to methods, like numerical modeling, used to understand, quantify, and possibly predict disasters. Written simply but without being simplistic, Diacu's text is driven by enthusiasm for his field and its potential for solving some of humanity's big problems. In nine chapters, Diacu examines natural disasters-volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, tsunamis and floods-but also takes time to examine human-driven disasters: financial collapse, pandemic disease, and climate change. Diacu chronicles the history of each field of prediction clearly and concisely, illustrating how developments in mathematics drove developments in geology, and vice-versa, as well as the unpredictable variables as dictated by "the monkey in the machine," chaos theory. A chapter on climate change is particularly insightful and important. Few non-scientists understand how climate models work, but it would dispel a lot of skepticism if they did; Diacu manages it in just seven pages, in language anyone can understand.
The science behind predicting catastrophes involves differential equations, but math-phobics, have no fear. Mathemetician Diacu writes a whole book about applying them without a single string of numbers, letters, and bamboozling symbols. OK, maybe defining differential equation somewhere in passing would’ve been nice, but Diacu’s little histories of predicting eight varieties of disaster are pretty absorbing and informative, so we’ll live. At least, we hope so, and thanks to the development of mathematical models of how tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, rapid climate change, comet and asteroid collisions with the earth, pandemics, and financial crashes come about, we can be increasingly confident that we will. Two kinds of catastrophe are much less predictable than others: market crashes and earthquakes, because they are extremely chaotic and only now is the satellite-enabled Global Positioning System locating the junctions of tectonic plates with any precision. Easing into each chapter with a bit of personal history, Diacu warmly assures us in conclusion that scores of people are working to hone predictive mathematical tools ever sharper. --Ray Olson