Awaiting the next Black Swan

HPC editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan posts a rare recommendation for a recent book about rare events that rarely meet our expectations.

It’s rare that I evangelize about a book, but once in a while, I come across a tome that either appeals highly to my sense of reason or makes me think differently about how some aspect of my life or how our world functions. I recently read a book that does both, and I think it has application for the composites community.

The book and author might be familiar to you: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, was published in 2007. Both have been much discussed since publication, and Taleb is a regular guest on many of the 24/7 news and economy shows that populate cable TV — particularly since the financial/banking sector meltdown in fall 2008.

Taleb is part statistician, part economic analyst, part historian, part investment banker and part philosopher — at least he is for the purposes of the book he authored. In the book, Taleb explores in great detail the theory he has developed, called the Black Swan, which says, in a nutshell, that much of human history has been positively and negatively affected by the advent of relatively rare and unforeseen events: All swans are white (or so we believe) and, therefore, (again, so we believe) a black swan is impossible. When one comes along (and, very rarely, they do), we are unprepared. Taleb’s contention, of course, is that a Black Swan is only improbable. The large impact of improbable events, he calls it. One of the tenets of Taleb’s argument is the notion that complex human systems (e.g., economies, the financial sector, deepwater oil wells, air traffic control systems) are inherently fragile and susceptible to easy disruption. Further, humans in general have proven not to be very good at assessing risks in these systems and, thus, underestimate their vulnerability to a negative Black Swan — such as the recent Wall Street-initiated world recession.

At the same time, human systems, thanks to the same complexity that makes them fragile, are also capable of spontaneous and paradigm-shifting innovation and creativity (e.g., the telephone, penicillin, television, the computer chip, the Internet, etc.). And when innovation occurs, it’s often difficult for us to appreciate quickly its true potential. When the Internet first came along, how many of us could have imagined that it was a positive Black Swan that would one day allow us to wirelessly send and receive text, photos and video via handheld devices?

If we extend the Black Swan concept to the composites community, a thought experiment emerges: Can we anticipate the risks of disaster and the bursts of innovation? Some Black Swans we have seen before and can imagine happening again, like a shortage of carbon fiber. And we can look back on some innovation and see that we are living through some Black Swans already, like the pervasive use of carbon fiber composites in the 787 Dreamliner and the A350 XWB. It’s not possible, however, to foresee true Black Swans, because, by definition, they are simply beyond our powers of imagination.

But we can, at least, allow for the possibility of Black Swans: Does increased use of carbon fiber in wind blades represent a game-changing Black Swan, or is it just another market segment for carbon fiber? Do efforts like BMW’s Megacity Vehicle represent the dawn of carbon fiber’s use in mass-prodcution automotive structural members, or just a modest experiment in carbon fiber use? These are large and largely unanswerable questions as of yet, but it’s intriguing to contemplate the change that’s already shaped this community and wonder what Black Swans await us.