I have become fascinated with rare and unpredictable events. My interest was triggered by the book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a renowned financial economist. The theory defines so called black swan events as the following (from Wikipedia):
1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs
So, a black swan has a low probability and a high impact. Wars, plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis and 9/11 are all negative black swans.
And while most discussions of black swans focus on the bad ones, there are positive black swans too, like the unprecedented growth of personal computers, social media, and Google. Who, in 1960, looking at an entire building full of data processing equipment, with giant machines sorting IBM punch cards (for those of you under age 35, see http://www.divms.uiowa.edu/~jones/cards/history.html for a brief history) could have envisioned having massive computing power in an 11 x 0.5 inch MAC AIR like the one I am using now.
“The Black Swan” is wide ranging in its scope, drawing on mathematics, economics, philosophy, psychology and history, and Taleb is as amusing as he is provocative. Read it on the plane going home for the holidays! The conversation at the dinner table will be elevated far above analyzing the most recent GOP presidential debate.
The book nested nicely into a discussion I had with my son, a computer software engineer. One of his professors contends that innovations are rare and result in quantum changes in the human condition (see Lawrence Husick’s list of 25 in “From Stone to Silicon: A Brief Survey of Innovation” http://www.fpri.org/footnotes/1325.200810.husick.stonetosilicon.html).
Some new sparkling, transcendent invention occurs, and then, for a long period of time, is altered in some fashion. The modifications may seem like innovations, but most often they are just perfections of the invention. We can almost draw a continuum from moveable type and the Gutenberg Bible to the Kindle Fire. Both are means of expanding access to the printed word. The PC…nothing new has happened in the past 30 years since IBM introduced model number 5150 on August 12, 1981. Computers have gotten faster, smaller, and bigger (storage), but still function via the same binary code using ones and zeros. The first steam engine was built in 1690, and in the most basic terms, a nuclear power plant is essentially a steam engine, with the heat from fission used to drive a steam turbine which turns a generator to manufacture electricity. And, in actuality, most electricity comes from coal fired plants using steam just like the first engine built in 1690.
In the life sciences, what are the quantum leap events? At the turning of the millenium in 2000, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine listed eleven:
ELUCIDATION OF HUMAN ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY
DISCOVERY OF CELLS AND THEIR SUBSTRUCTURES
ELUCIDATION OF THE CHEMISTRY OF LIFE
APPLICATION OF STATISTICS TO MEDICINE
DEVELOPMENT OF ANESTHESIA
DISCOVERY OF THE RELATION OF MICROBES TO DISEASE
ELUCIDATION OF INHERITANCE AND GENETICS
KNOWLEDGE OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
DEVELOPMENT OF BODY IMAGING
DISCOVERY OF ANTIMICROBIAL AGENTS
DEVELOPMENT OF MOLECULAR PHARMACOTHERAPY
EDITORIAL Looking Back on the Millennium in Medicine, N Engl J Med 2000; 342:42-49 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200001063420108)
I would venture to say most of us are toiling on one of these 11 trenches.
And aren’t we all watching and waiting for next life science “black swan”!