Book Review: Megadisasters: The Science of Predicting the Next Catastrophe by Florin Diacu

Review by Kristina Bartlett Brody

To describe “the science of predicting,” Diacu ends up taking a comprehensive look back. The result is an excellent history of natural disasters and of the science behind understanding and mitigating those disasters. For a who’s who of volcanic eruptions, major earthquakes, big hurricanes, asteroid near-hits or historic pandemics, this book is the place to go.

Diacu, a mathematics professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, proves an excellent storyteller. The fluid writing and tidbits of science history prepare the reader well for what caps each chapter: an assessment of how well scientists can predict each type of disaster. But Diacu often goes beyond discussing whether or not prediction is possible and suggests that prevention is a better goal. For example, scientists can forecast the when and where of hurricanes, Diacu notes, but predictions of intensities remain elusive — complicating decisions on evacuations. The way to prevent tragedy, he contends, is to keep coastal communities small.

Asteroids colliding with Earth are a different matter, having potential consequences of Armageddon-like proportions. The best bet is to track and follow asteroid paths in detail decades ahead, Diacu says, which scientists are starting to do. Ultimately, the key to preventing an asteroid-induced disaster will be to change the object’s course — an ability that Diacu suggests could be realized in the coming decades.

Diacu even tackles economic crises. The current situation, which was in its early stages as Diacu finished this book, is similar to the financial disasters of 1929 and 1873 — but not completely, he argues. “The prediction and prevention of stock market crashes is likely to remain a big challenge for many years to come.”

Princeton University Press, 2009, 195 p., $24.95.