Blogs > Cliopatria > The Great Wave: Tsunamis and Criticality

Feb 3, 2005 1:12 pm

The Great Wave: Tsunamis and Criticality

The earthquake that caused the tsunami of December 26 2004 will keep generating waves for some time. Not the waves of water that killed more than 280,000 people, but other sorts of aftershocks and consequences. Waves of disease like typhoid and cholera remain a danger, though the United Nations now seems hopeful that widespread famine can be averted. More happily, the tsunami generated waves of sympathy around the world and, after a bit of a slow start, waves of generosity as well. Somewhere between plague and human kindness in terms of desirability are the great waves of comment and punditry that the tsunami also produced, as we all feebly attempt to make sense of a human tragedy on this inhuman scale.

The great Lisbon earthquake (and tsunami) of 1755 was both an immense disaster and a major metaphysical event. The intellectual work of making sense of that disaster—why did this happen, what does it mean?—turned the course of Enlightenment philosophy. In the book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy, Susan Neiman argues that the day after the Lisbon earthquake was the first day of the modern world:

The eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today. How much weight can a brute reference carry? It takes no more than the name of a place to mean: the collapse of the most basic trust in the world, the grounds that make civilization possible. Learning this, modern readers may feel wistful: lucky the age to which an earthquake can do so much damage. [read more]

Leibniz and Rousseau said the earthquake must serve some purpose in the grand scheme of things—they just couldn’t see what it was. Voltaire was disgusted by these responses; to him, Lisbon mocked belief in a benevolent and orderly Providence. (The Lisbon earthquake also inspired Immanuel Kant, in ways I'm not clever enough to figure out, to articulate the concept of the sublime.)

But I’m leaning towards Voltaire on this one. The wisest reflections on the Indian Ocean tsunami, or the ones that seemed most wise to me, were those that acknowledged the near impossibility of making sense of it, of fitting something that big and impersonal and awful into any kind of useful or comforting human narrative. In my own little corner of the infosphere, I’d include among the wiser philosophes James Carroll, my colleague this year at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Caleb McDaniel, my new virtual colleague here at Cliopatria. Early in January, Caleb asked if “rattling on about the meaning of these deaths” might interfere with feeling compassion for those who are suffering. But then, noting that “compassion” actually means “suffering with,” he also asked in what sense he and his readers—warm, fed, privileged, and alive—could possibly “suffer with” those who lost everything to the great wave. And in a Boston Globe column that is reposted here, Jim Carroll turned in his thoughtful way to the biblical story of Job as a meditation on the mystery of suffering. Job is defined, Jim wrote, by his insistence that unearned suffering must have some larger purpose or meaning. But what is that meaning? Where are the great answers to be found? Not in the land of the living, Job learns. “Don’t ask me,” says the Abyss. “Talk to the hand,” says the Sea. (I’m paraphrasing.) Oh, and I also liked Ralph Luker’s observation right here at Cliopatria that three basic tenets of Western religious thought—God is omnipotent, God is good, evil is real—cannot all be simultaneously true. It’s like “good, fast, and cheap,” I suppose, or “cheap land, cheap labor, and freedom”; you can pick any two.

But what if we just take the Big G-hyphen-D out of the picture? If you don’t believe in God, if you don’t think the universe owes us any straight answers, you might still seek a way to wrap your mind around a catastrophe on this scale. How does a nonbeliever try to come to terms with something like the tsunami? Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, a fairly sensitive Canadian historian of the United States, one with a sporadically-updated weblog, a love for robots, and a winning smile. How might such an admirable fellow try to grapple with a disaster like the Indian Ocean tsunami?

Well, if he had a weakness for trendy ideas in math and science, he might start by thinking about criticality and the apparent ubiquity of power law relationships. What does that mean? The Lisbon and Indian Ocean tsunamis were triggered by earthquakes. Earthquakes are actually very common. There are in fact thousands of them every day. But the vast majority of these tremors are so tiny as to be imperceptible. Larger earthquakes, which can be felt but do little damage, are far less common, and extremely large earthquakes, the kind that topple buildings and create tsunamis, are thankfully rarer still.

The interesting thing about this is that the relationship between the size and frequency of earthquakes is predictable and nearly constant. Double the size of an earthquake and it becomes four times as rare. This is known as the Gutenberg-Richter relationship, and it’s probably the most famous and robust example of a power law distribution. But what is even more interesting is that the same kind of predictable relationship between the intensity of an event and its frequency seems to apply across a very wide range of phenomena, both natural and man-made: forest fires, stock market fluctuations, the extinction of species, the shape of the internet. Power law relationships have almost no predictive power: knowing the probability of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake does absolutely no good in predicting when or where it will be. But they do turn up in all sorts of places.

This is a lot of science, even overly-simplified pop science, for a history blog, but I’m coming back around to our usual subject. The eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis talks about criticality and power law relationships in his book The Landscape of History. Gaddis asks whether historians might also find such patterns in human-made history:

Can we detect criticality in history? Of course we can in retrospect: that’s what we’re doing when we trace the rise and fall of empires, the beginnings and endings of wars, the diffusion of ideas and technologies, the outbreaks of plagues and famines, perhaps even the emergence and disappearance of “great” men and women whose qualifications for “greatness” depend upon their capacity to influence others.

Tangent: Other historians may note that Gaddis lists here as the central concerns of history empires, wars, and great men (and great women, to be fair). I find it notable and a little vexing that the only historians I know who like to think about metaphors from modern math and science in relation to history are those from the stereotypically right-leaning (relatively speaking) wings of the academy. There seems to be something about diplomatic historians and military historians and so on that makes them open to ideas like criticality or chaos theory or counterfactuals in ways that “bottom up” social historians and meaning-oriented cultural historians usually are not. Maybe it has to do with a greater faith in discrete causation. I’m thinking particularly of a talk I saw last year on chaos theory and the origins of the First World War that began with some very interesting ideas but ultimately revealed as its true agenda (I thought) the scoring of historiographical points against cultural and social histories in favor of an old school “drums and bugles” approach.

Anyway. Criticality and power law relationships, like chaos and complexity theory, or emergence and the so-called science of networks, are trendy ideas right now that are being applied in a lot of places. Serious scholars get skeptical, and rightly so, when an idea like criticality gains a lot of momentum in the pop science world. Especially when people start extrapolating from genuine science to woolly-headed quasi-philosophical discussion. Which is just what I’m doing here. So I should stress, as Gaddis also does, that I’m using these ideas as metaphors. I’m not talking about highly specific mathematical and physical processes. But if we accept that we are just talking about metaphors here, about ways of representing states of being and relationships between predictable and non-predictable phenomena, then the idea of consistent power law relationships might be useful in thinking about events like the Indian Ocean tsunami, or about the orderliness and disorderliness of nature more generally.

What all the examples of power law relationships above are said to share is a state called criticality. Criticality is neither stability nor instability, but something in between. Most of the time, a system in a state of criticality keeps on doing whatever its doing. But there is always the possibility of an abrupt change: an earthquake, an avalanche, a stock market crash. The likelihood of that happening is inversely proportional to the magnitude of the event when it occurs. I’ll spare you the mathematics. Just Google for “self-organized criticality” or check out this syllabus from MIT and you’ll have all the reading on the subject you’ll ever need.

Somewhere in there, there may be an alternative to a binary choice where the universe either makes sense or it doesn’t, where, to quote Kant, there is either “a purpose in nature” or only “a senseless course of events.” Albert Einstein told Max Born, “You believe in the God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order.” But maybe criticality lets both Einstein and Born be right. It offers a way of describing a world ruled both by dice and order. (As does Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s another post.) Criticality and power law relationships don’t promise that history or nature have a purpose, but they do propose that they have patterns. They tell us what I think we instinctively feel to be true: that things usually stay the same, except when they don’t. A few big things happen to us, and a lot of small things. The bigger the thing, the less often it should happen. Criticality is not quite order and not quite chaos, but criticality is where, alas and hooray, we seem to live our lives.

This is far from a great answer to the questions of evil, or unearned suffering, or the awesome destruction nature very occasionally wreaks. (Were you actually expecting a great answer to any of these questions? In a weblog?) But it is to me a much more believable answer than “this is all part of some great plan,” and also a better answer than no answer at all.

(Crossposted to

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/5/2005

A fascinating post, thank you.

I do wonder how useful chaos theory would be to history, except as an intriguing analogy.

First of all, how many historians know what it is beyond vague analogies? I've certainly not looked at the math with care(not that my looking would help much. Calculus is one reason I am not a physicist.)

Even for those historians who can follow the math, to what extent do they use the math as opposed to simply invoking an analogy on a somewhat sounder basis?

As an example, if my understanding is correct, chaotic systems can be identified mathematically. Have they used math to identify human society as such a system?

Finally, I do not wish this post to sound like a rejection of such analogies. Like many of us, I have often speculated on the relation between what Braudel called "the structure of everyday life" and bursts of change. Chaos theory reminds us that there are situations in which small events can, in a given context, result and large and not terrible predictable results. That's a useful thought.

But to the extent to which we allow such use to give a scientific patina to non-scientific results, we are being a bit misleading.

W. Caleb McDaniel - 2/3/2005

I agree, Jonathan: I intended my comment as a musing (I wonder if historians will do this ...) more than as a piece of advice (historians should do this ...). I also didn't mean for it to sound like a bad thing that historians borrow from anthropology or political science. I'm all in favor of interdisciplinarity.

Also, I stand by the tried and true distinction between human and natural sciences: humans give descriptions of themselves; rocks don't.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/3/2005

Not to be flip, but I don't borrow concepts from the natural sciences because they're studying something completely different. There's a useful analogy or two in there, perhaps, but that's about as far as it goes. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are actually studying people in social systems, and so am I, and I find their insights sometimes helpful at a fundamental level.

And sometimes they're not, but part of our job is figuring out which is which, sometimes by trial and error.

W. Caleb McDaniel - 2/3/2005

Thanks for a great post, Rob, and for your kind comments about my own post.

Perhaps one reason social and cultural historians have remained wary of borrowing from the natural sciences, while they gleefully take their theoretical cues from anthropology and literary theory, is because of the lingering suspicion that the natural sciences make positivist claims about certainty and explanation. I wonder whether that will start to change now that many Kuhnian historians and philosophers of science question how different the natural sciences really are from the human ones.

Regarding criticality, it strikes me that one problem is defining what we mean by "momentousness" and "size" in the case of natural disasters or moral evils. With a Richter scale I suppose there is something to measure that corresponds reasonably well to what we mean by a "big" earthquake. But is a "big" disaster the same thing? How do we quantify disaster? Simply by numbers of deaths?

Rob MacDougall - 2/3/2005

Oh, and regarding Gaddis: Yes, and he actually goes further than an IR political scientist in Landscape of History - he says that history is, or could be, much more scientific than the social sciences. He finds history most akin to the observational natural sciences (ie, the ones where you can't really run experiments) like astronomy and evolutionary biology.

Rob MacDougall - 2/3/2005

Jeff, Ralph: Thanks. Glad you found it interesting.

Jeff, what is supposed to be "comforting" about this (keeping in mind Caleb's question about whether anyone ought to be comforted at all about these things) is not only that massive natural disasters are rare but also the unexpected fact that their size and frequency are proportional - that there is some unexpected order in what seems utterly random. This will of course be of absolutely no comfort to anyone whose life is genuinely touched by calamity. Its primary utility is to bloggers and other philosophizers safely on the other side of the world.

You are both right to bring up human disasters, which are at once more preventable and predictable than earthquakes and the like. The Susan Neiman book I cited begins with Lisbon and ends with Auschwitz; it would take a lot more than my Scientific American grasp of complexity theory to explain the latter away.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/3/2005

Rob, I'd like to add my voice to Jeff's. This is a terrific post. Critical theory does seem to offer some limited answer to the problem of natural disasters, but as Jeff suggests, the human disasters seem to concentrate in some places and with such frequency as to challenge its re-assurances.

Jeff Vanke - 2/3/2005


If you keep writing like that, I'd pay to read more, unless you left it out there for free.

Was your middle ground there simply to state that the probabilities of quarter-million-death natural disasters are very low in any given year? I guess that's a little comforting; it's like why I'm not bothered by air travel.

I saw Gaddis given an early version of his spiel. He almost sounded like an IR political scientist -- let's reduce it to (near-)scientific rules.

Now, if we could do something about this semi-centennial multimillion-death war, in the Congo....

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