The Mathematics of Megadisasters: BIRS talks with Florin Diacu

Posted on Fri, Dec 13 2013 11:38:00

Florin Diacu is a Canadian mathematician and author. He is currently a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Victoria, doing research in the field of dynamical systems. He is the recipient of the Best Academic Book Award in 2011 for his volume Megadisasters: Predicting the Next Catastrophe , the subject of his public lecture at The Banff Centre on November 14, 2013. This was the second talk in a series of joint Banff Centre/BIRS public lectures, which is part of The Banff Centre's Leading Ideas Speaker Series.

Diacu began research in celestial mechanics while completing his PhD thesis at the University of Heidelberg, Germany and focused on collisions between celestial bodies; however, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused him to look elsewhere at mathematical models that affect the earth. That megadisaster killed close to 250 000 people and spurred questions relating to research on not only earthquakes and tsunamis, but also collisions of meteors with the earth, volcanic eruptions, rapid climate change, pandemics and stock market crashes, not all of which are as destructive, but nonetheless influence people’s lives significantly.

His book is written for the general public, and thus lends perfectly to this public lecture series. “I was mostly interested in telling people the state of the art relative to predicting these megadisasters. In most cases we have mathematical models that help us. In British Columbia, for example, we know that a big earthquake is coming and that it’s going to be the biggest disaster ever in North America (magnitude nine or higher). It could happen in 20 generations, but it could be any time. The problem is knowing what to do under such circumstances and how to recognize the signs.”

During his talk, Diacu gave an example of the benefits of being educated on warning signs. In 2004, a ten-year-old girl was with her family on a beach in Phuket, Thailand. The girl noticed that the sea looked bubbly and was reminded of a movie she had recently seen about the Hawaii tsunami of 1946, which depicted a similar phenomenon directly before the wave hit. Because she recognized the warning sign, the girl was able to warn her family and the lifeguard on duty, and save the lives of a 100 other tourists who were on the beach that day.

Diacu is currently on a panel that oversees a marine observatory near the coast of British Columbia and are working to implement an early warning system for earthquakes. “They cannot be predicted long in advance” he explains, “From the moment an earthquake is triggered until we get hit by the wave might be only ten to thirty seconds, but if a system is implemented we could, for instance, automatically stop or slow down trains to prevent them from derailing or stop gas supplies, as the pipes break during earthquakes and cause fires and explosions. We are trying to see exactly how a warning system might work, and then convince government and other private organizations to provide financial support.”

There were about 100 people in the audience for the lecture in Banff, a mix of about 40 mathematicians and 60 members of the general public. “With a talk like this you have to keep it general and supply many images and examples that the audience can relate to and understand without a background in the science. It is very rewarding because you know that people leave the room having learned something new and useful. And I find with this topic that there is so much interest and inquiry from the audience that the questions actually lasted longer than the talk.”

As a member of the PIMS executive at the time of BIRS inception, Diacu is very proud of how the organization has evolved. “We had originally thought to develop a site somewhere very isolated, but we gain much more by being at The Banff Centre because we can also interact with the people there. BIRS is not just mathematicians interacting with each other, but with the public lectures, plays, movies and concerts being held at The Banff Centre, and through this Leading Idea Series, BIRS is further able to contribute to that unique interaction between arts and science.”